Haiti's lax regulation yields unsafe buildings

Published: Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The rusty trucks groan as they climb the rugged mountain one after another, puffing toward a loading station to be filled with tons of sand scraped off the ridge. In this dirt-poor nation, the construction process often begins at this rock pit midway up a bleached mountain outside Port-au-Prince where sand entrepreneurs load up, then fan out across the capital in search of buyers.

The construction of buildings here is as unregulated as the collection and sale of the mountain sand that ends up in concrete shacks, sprawling homes and dwellings in places such as Petionville, the suburban city where a recent school collapse killed 91 students and teachers and injured another 162 people.

The flimsy permit process for construction exists with little, if any, government oversight, inspections or accountability. The collapse of the church-run College La Promesse Evangelique, and the partial cave-in of another school five days later in a nearby Port-au-Prince neighborhood, revealed Haiti's archaic and deeply flawed building practices.

"People are building without codes, without norms, without any knowledge, " said Patrick Figaro, a local engineer. "Nobody is there to keep them from doing it."

Figaro, among the first rescuers at the school collapse, said inspectors exist "only on books, " making it easier for individuals to use less cement or rebar in their slabs.

Technically, building laws do exist in Haiti. But few follow them.

Even Haiti's new prime minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis, recounts how no one from the government ever inspected the construction of several schools she built even after she asked them to.

She also recalls how an international body once documented the deteriorating state of Haitian schools throughout the country. The government ignored the findings, she said.

"There are no standards, " Pierre-Louis told The Miami Herald. "What we have to start doing is create standards at all levels. We have to make sure we have the qualifications, the competent manpower and that [they are] empowered to do their job, " she said.

In Haiti, decades of instability from dictatorship, periodic coups and military rule have allowed shoddy construction amid rapid urban growth.

For example, a prized Port-au-Prince hillside, Morne L'Hôpital, was once deemed a protected, no-construction zone. Today, it is home to the Eternal City, a slum of unfinished cinderblock shacks. Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, after seizing power in a 1988 military coup, parceled out the land as payment to army soldiers who helped him.

"Every time there is instability, a bidonville [slum] gets created. Every time there is instability you see the people head for the hills and do what they like, " President René Préval told The Herald.

"We shouldn't lie to ourselves and say tomorrow morning we are going to get rid of all of the bidonvilles in this country, " he added. "But with political stability and continuity, we can then begin to address the problem. It's not something that will be resolved in one day."


Since the deadly Nov. 7 school collapse, recommendations for improving the construction process have poured in from legislators, government ministers and mayors. They include shuttering the sand quarry, adding more building codes and an education commission to study the issue.

But no one has come up with a plan to better enforce the laws that already exist.

Under current statutes, those preparing to build must first seek permission from City Hall. They are required to declare their intentions in writing and provide a list of documents, including the building plans and the name of the engineer.

Most people either ignore the law, or go to City Hall well after they've started building, municipal authorities say.

But residents aren't the only ones skirting the law.

The municipal engineering departments are supposed to forward all requests to the Ministry of Public Works for review.

"If there are 500 houses being constructed in Petionville, perhaps they send only three or four to the ministry, " said former Public Works Minister Frantz Vérella.

But even if the authorization is given, there is no guarantee the individual doing the approving at City Hall is qualified to do the job.

For example, while the city of Port-au-Prince boasts three architects, 10 engineers and more than a dozen inspectors in its 30-person city engineering department -- according to its mayor -- many cities and towns have no qualified government engineers.

Cities are not alone in struggling to attract qualified engineers or urban planners. Vérella, who was replaced as public works minister two months ago, estimates there were about 120 engineers in the entire ministry -- and less than a dozen certified urban planners in the entire country.

The southwestern tourist city of Jacmel, population 400,000, has about one government engineer for every 100,000 people, Vérella said. Guadeloupe, the French-speaking Caribbean island with about the same population, has eight per 5,000.


Port-au-Prince Mayor M. Jean-Yves Jason concedes that one of the biggest issues for mayors is the lack of clarity in Haitian law over how much power mayors have over their cities. As a result, mayors say, it's difficult to know to what extent the city or central government is responsible for ensuring building safety.

That leaves it up to residents and local engineers to ensure that projects are structurally sound.

Haitians also say inspections often are nothing more than a means for collecting bribes.

Inspectors are usually on the lookout waiting for individuals to begin to pour a slab. Once they see someone doing so, they ask for a permit. If one cannot be produced, residents say, the construction is blocked.

"They collect and there are a group of men in the mayor's office who collect. . . . That is what they call an inspection, " Vérella said. "There is no one who confirms if the mix is done correctly, if enough cement is being used. There is not a single person who confirms anything. That is supposed to be the job of the municipality, the engineer department."

Jason says his inspectors don't take bribes and points to buildings around the capital sprayed with red paint, indicating to builders that their construction is closed for lack of a permit.

In the days since the second school partially collapsed, Jason said Port-au-Prince has begun to demolish several unsafe homes. The demolition began in the very neighborhood, Canapé Vert, where the second school partially collapsed and was later destroyed.

But entrepreneurs and others who live off the sand in Laboule say demolition is not the answer.

"They should help us, " said Wilma LaPointe, 37, a truck driver who sells mountain sand. "Tell us how to better construct and help us do it."