Politics & society, Research, Science & environment

Architecture professor heads to Haiti with U.N. team

Throughout her career, disaster expert Mary Comerio has traveled the globe to study the wreckage from deadly earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods and to determine the best approaches to recovery.

UC Berkeley architecture professor Mary Comerio — who soon will head to Haiti as part of a post-disaster team — is no stranger to natural disaster.

Muralee Thummarukudy, Michael Samways, and Mary Comerio

Muralee Thummarukudy of the U.N. Environment Program, and Michael Samways of Enviros of Great Britain, with Mary Comerio of UC Berkeley in Beichuan China, a new town under construction, to supply much-needed housing after China's major 2009 earthquake.

Throughout her career, she has toured the globe to study the wreckage from deadly earthquakes, hurricanes and floods and to determine the best approaches to recovery. Her most recent stops include New Orleans,  China and Italy. Now the author of “Disaster Hits Home” is heading to the Haitian capitol of Port-au-Prince as a consultant and information coordinator for the United Nations’ Environment Program’s post-disaster team there.

When a 7.0 magnitude quake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, the country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, suffered from a “black swan event” — a high-impact, rare and hard-to-predict disaster that represented the most incredible and devastating combination of factors. Just as such an event can ‘t be foreseen, a recovery response to it also is impossible to prepare for, she added.

In a recent interview, Comerio said she has data from satellite photos and other sources about structural damage from the quake, which was centered near Port-au-Prince. U.N. officials estimate that about 30 percent of the city ‘s buildings are still standing, while most of the others are collapsed or severely damaged. Comerio said she is eager to examine the structures still standing to see how their condition and geographic location may improve rebuilding in a country currently lacking a national building code.

And Comerio is curious about how international governmental and aid agencies are working with a weak Haitian government, with one another and the previously unknown non-governmental agencies, community organizations and others already established in Haiti — as well as with an international list of academic experts from the technical and social sciences.

“They ‘re all just overwhelmed,” Comerio said. “They ‘re trying to do their regular jobs and disaster relief. There are no rules here.”

She acknowledged the challenges of supplying emergency food and shelter for an estimated 1 million people, scheduling and attending a multitude of urgent logistical meetings with old and new partners, and balancing significant and often sensitive financial and political concerns. The situation is complicated by the fact that much of Haiti ‘s physical infrastructure and social institutions have collapsed as the country experiences an influx of hundreds of relief-focused organizations and prepares for rainy and hurricane seasons.

“Who’s on first? Who will call the shots?” Comerio asked. “This is unchartered territory. I don ‘t think anybody knows how it will resolve itself.”


Mary Comerio's 1998 book from UC Press

Comerio recommends that major relief organizations work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have  proven track records and years of experience in Haiti. “What decisions are made about including or not including the local agencies will really make the recovery effort work, or will really screw it up,” she said.

If the Haitian government can ‘t lead the relief effort, Comerio said, international agencies may have to take it on. Even so, she said, such agencies would be wise to employ large numbers of Haitians and rely on their knowledge of island customs, culture and politics.

“You have to invest more in on-the-ground self-help models that the NGOs are so good at,” she said.

Comerio said academic experts are keeping each other informed on the latest developments and news around Haitian rebuilding. For example, she recalled a question that arose about the effect of limestone found in the concrete of collapsed buildings in Haiti. Within three hours, faculty from the UC Berkeley-based Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research (PEER) Center, of which Comerio is a member, supplied technical data, including information about the regulation of limestone aggregate in various building codes, and asked for immediate shipment of samples for testing.

“There ‘s a whole network of academic strength out there,” Comerio said. “That ‘s what we ‘re good at — that network of support. It may be that official action in Haiti may be more dependent than ever on the academic community in this situation. ”

And the often-maligned media may play a critical role in Haiti, she said, by transmitting information more widely and more quickly than bureaucratic institutions.

Comerio has some ideas about how Haiti might best proceed with its recovery, balancing expediency versus the need for long-term stability:

  • Repair, occupy and use structures that can be fixed.
  • Develop new land use regulations making the most soft soil and landslide-prone areas of the country off limits to building and outlining strategies for the murky issues around land titles.
  • Focus on the local level, getting to know leaders of new tent cities and hiring residents there.
  • Rebuild with lightweight, hurricane-resistant materials, including wood and alternative/green materials.

“It’s doable, but it requires a different way of thinking,” Comerio said. “Don’t build the last century’s infrastructure — leapfrog to solar and distributive technologies. ”

Disaster recovery depends, in large measure, on the characteristics of the country where the disaster happened — its politics, weather, funding and who is paying attention to what’s happening, she said. After China’s big quake in 2008, authorities rushed to build expedient but conventional concrete and masonry housing so the area ‘s residents wouldn ‘t have to endure a second cold winter season in tent camps. Last year following a big quake in L’Aquila, Italy, Comerio added, experts incorporated state-of-the-art base isolation design into new housing for improved safety, but built the new homes in rural pastures far from established communities.

More of Comerio’s thoughts about Haitian recovery are online as part of The Berkeley Blog at http://bit.ly/5ok5IY.