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Structural engineers assess building damage

Denver MB joins the engineer team assessing buildings

By Linda Espenshade

When the structural engineers working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Haiti evaluate the soundness of earthquake-damaged buildings, their classification is very practical: Is it safe to use? Can it be used with restrictions? Should it be abandoned?

During the one-hour inspection per building, structural engineers are reading the cracks in the walls and looking at the building from close up and far away, to make an immediate determination.

“What we’re doing now is emergency work,” says Johann Zimmermann, a licensed structural engineer from Harrisonburg, Va., who is leading MCC’s team. “People have to get off the street. People have to get back in the buildings.”

The team of three engineers, which will soon expand to four, is focusing its work on public buildings used by organizations working in the community. Assessing homes will happen eventually. Partnering with Zimmermann during the first week are Peter Pereverzoff of Rochester, N.Y., and Marcus Schiere, from the Netherlands. Chick Babcock, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who attends Grantham Church – Brethren in Christ, and Ralph Rempel of Littleton, Colo., who attends Belleview Community Church in Littleton, will join them this week. Zimmermann will return home.

 Tuesday, Jan. 26, the team evaluated six schools: two were usable, two had damage that could be fixed without engineers, and two would need technical expertise to complete the repairs, Zimmermann said. The team and United Nations inspectors in Haiti are using an assessment form from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, which allows them to share information on inspections.

Initially the team of engineers sent by MCC was spending several hours assessing each building and explaining to Haitian builders how to make repairs. They soon realized that approach wasn’t time efficient. 

Instead, the engineers are noting the buildings that need further repair and are hoping a formal MCC assessment team, scheduled to arrive in late February, will determine the best way to teach Haitian builders to do the technical repairs. Structural evaluation of homes is also a need the assessment team will consider as it plans MCC’s mid-term response. 

“We’ve met some people who are very capable,” Zimmermann says. With a little instruction, they would be able to make the repairs. Prior to this earthquake, builders didn’t realize they needed to make a building earthquake resistant, nor did they have the training to do so, he says.

Zimmermann, who attends Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, is touched by the openness and kindness of Haitians who are anxious with every tremor and fear entering any building that has not been evaluated. “We really like the people-to-people part of it,” he says. “With going fast from place to place, we still want to get in and sit a couple minutes with the people who are there, get to know the little children… not just look at concrete and steel.”

MCC plans to keep a changing team of four structural engineers, working in Haiti through the end of February. More than 50 engineers already have offered their services. 

MCC’s office was the first beneficiary of the engineers’ work, when Zimmermann and two other team members arrived Jan. 23. The engineers determined that the office was safe but in need of repair, and a nearby medical clinic/classroom building will be usable once two columns on the first floor are strengthened.

On Sunday, the engineers attended Assemblée de la Grace, a Mennonite church in Croix- -Des-Bouquet, about eight miles northeast of Port-au-Prince. Almost everyone in the community was affected by the earthquake, with most houses damaged and a few destroyed.

The church was damaged beyond repair, Zimmermann says, but people were most concerned about the safety of a swaying water tower set on 20-feet concrete columns. After the engineers determined that the columns could be repaired, they explained to a builder how to do that.

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