Rebuilding Haiti: an engineer’s story

By Jesse Zhang
Published: February 2010

What Newton resident Marvin Davidson remembers most about his 11-day stay in Haiti are the orphans.

“It was visiting the orphanage and seeing the beautiful children and the longing looks in their eyes, Davidson said of his experience.

Nearly a month after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti, Davidson, a structural engineer, still remembers the sheer destruction he saw there.

“I’ve never seen such poverty in my life. I’ve never seen such devastation. I’ve never seen a situation that looked so hopeless, he said.

Davidson’s journey began on January 17, when he first read about an “urgent need of French-speaking structural engineers on the Engineers Without Borders website. Without hesitation, Davidson sent in a resume; he left for Haiti the following week.

“I had been meaning to volunteer my services for a couple of years already in some kind of project in Central America, Davidson said. “I’m just at a point in my life where I’m very appreciative for all I have, and I feel like I’d like to help others a bit.

Davidson grew up in Montreal, Quebec. He came to Boston to earn a Master’s Degree of science in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, where he met his wife, now Goodwin guidance counselor Marcy Davidson, and fathered two children, Michael and Daniel.

He has worked as an engineer since 1982 and owns Davidson Engineering, Inc., a 15-year-old small business. Davidson focuses mostly on residential structural and foundation engineering.

Because of earthquake damage, getting to Haiti was not easy. Davidson flew at midnight to Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, and took a five-hour bus ride before finally arriving in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti.

Before making his way to Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital and the center of the earthquake, Davidson inspected many government and institutional buildings at Cap-Haïtien. During his trip, he worked with three other structural engineers. The group’s job was to inspect buildings for earthquake damage.

“[We had to] determine whether or not it would be advisable for people to go back into these buildings, based on the extent of the damage that we observed, he said.

Davidson flew via helicopter into Port-au-Prince on January 28, and his group set up camp at a United Nations (UN) base.

“It was extremely hot, extremely crowded, but it was luxury compared to what the Haitian people were experiencing, Davidson said. “We didn’t eat that well; you had to be careful about what you drink.

The UN camp was located near an airfield, and many people did not sleep well because airplanes would be flying over the camps until 4:00 am, according to Davidson.

Along with receiving Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and typhoid shots, foreigners like Davidson working in Haiti also had to watch out for malaria.

Davidson worked in Port-au-Prince until the last day of his stay on February 5. Every day, he would wake up at 4:00 am, “try to take a shower, answer emails, eat breakfast, and start work at 8:00.

“It was so hot, all we would really do was drink and eat occasional granola bars, he said. “We didn’t stop for lunch.

Davidson’s group inspected buildings that were still standing but cracked. After approaching the building, Davidson would first walk around the outside looking for signs of damage to the walls. If he found the building safe to enter, he would then inspect the inside.

“You [would] look for signs of columns separating from beams, for walls all cracked up, floors and roofs separating from walls, he said, describing the procedure.

In order to be considered safe, a building must be able to withstand two different types of forces. “Gravity loads are vertical forces caused by loads like furniture; they are supported by beams and posts. “Horizontal loads or “lateral loads are forces caused by winds or earthquakes.

Because Haiti is located in an earthquake zone and often experiences hurricanes, buildings must be able to endure lateral loads.

Unlike the buildings of Newton or Boston, buildings in Haiti have almost no wood-frame construction, Davidson said, and local building materials are primarily cement cinderblocks.

“I only saw one steel building, built in 1890 by the French, Davidson said. “[It was] still standing perfectly.

He noted that the structures that had problems in Haiti were poorly built, most likely because the citizens lacked the funding, knowledge, and building codes to construct stabler buildings.

“They just don’t have the same types of institutions that we have. It’s not an advanced society, not a well-educated society, Davidson said.

Davidson’s group inspected 15 buildings a day during the eight-day stay in Port-au-Prince, ultimately inspecting over 100 buildings and concluding that about two-thirds of the inspected buildings were safe to enter.

The group inspected several UN buildings, since many UN workers refused to enter certain buildings out of fear of the building collapsing.

“The UN lost a lot of people in collapsed buildings, Davidson said. “Because of the possibilities of aftershocks and further tremors, they didn’t want to lose more people.

What Davidson found most striking about the Haitian society was the incredible discrepancy between the lifestyles of the poor and the wealthy.  The wealthy were well-dressed, spoke French, and lived in far better homes. Some worked for the UN. The poor lived out in the street in slum-like areas. After the earthquake, many were homeless and lived in poorly-made tents.

“Unfortunately, Haiti is a society that is very divided by class and wealth, Davidson said. “Those who have money have it all.

On February 4, Davidson was asked to do a site visit for the Canadian Army. Several foreign governments had sent armies to provide humanitarian services, such as keeping roads open and providing food and water. Davidson was asked to give advice on keeping a key roadway open after an earthquake-induced landslide.

Early the next morning, Davidson flew to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, from the partially functioning Haiti Airport. He then drove for an hour to a separate airport, flew to the JFK airport in New York, and finally arrived in Boston at about 1:00 am.

After walking back into his home in Newton, Davidson could not help but feel overwhelmed by the disparity between his life and those of the earthquake victims in Haiti.

“I think many people are aware there are disparities, but when you’re actually in those poor areas walking through the streets, being within an inch of the people who have this type of life, it does something to you that no picture or movie or discussion can do to you, Davidson said.

Nevertheless, Davidson can still see hope and happiness in the hearts of the Haitians.

“These people are so used to not having [anything] that as bad as this earthquake has made things, they have a strength and a spirit to still go on, he said. “It’s eye-opening. That’s really all I can say.

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