Reconstruction Reconsidered: Is It Excellence?

A while ago, I posted about an apartment building under construction across from my house. The post emphasized the quickness with which something can take place in Haiti with the proper dedication. Several viewers of the video included with the post have pointed out that it is the very quickness that should be alarming.

The majority of the reason the earthquake devastated Haiti so thoroughly was not just the severity (indeed, a much larger earthquake hit Chile one month later with significantly less destruction in its wake), but the lack of a national building code. More precisely, it is the lack of an enforced building code that brought down so many domiciles. In the ensuing months, as billions of dollars and thousands of aid workers poured into Haiti, the country found itself faced with another problem: disbursement. Never before had the country seen so much financial resources, and never before had she seen so much red tape. Effectively disbursing money and resources of this magnitude came in tandem with all the accompanying bureaucracy one might imagine. While, undeniably, progress has been made in building new homes for those affected by the earthquake, it clearly has not been progress enough for the Haitians who still exist sans abri (homeless). Essentially, what’s a building code to someone with no building? The answer is: a waste of time.

For some, taking on construction projects that call for seismic modifications is an excellent source of revenue, if you can afford the job. These types of projects are expensive by nature, and can typically only be completed by the larger construction companies in Haiti. Panexus, for example, is the company behind the reconstruction of the Port-au-Prince airport, a project that has taken so long specifically due to the seismic retrofitting necessary to bring the airport up to a higher standard. Companies of such magnitude are few and far in between, and only able to take on a few jobs at a time (the airport renovation comprises the majority of Panexus’ time and resources at the moment). For the rest of the work to be done in Haiti, small-scale business owners and equally small construction outfits have continued par usual. The apartment complex down the street from me and the house quickly going up across the street are two prime examples. Both are being completed in record time and entirely via manual labor. At the same time, the methods used to construct these buildings are the same ones used to build many of the houses that withstood the earthquake, one of in which I currently reside. This quandary leaves landlords, small-time construction firms, and waiting tenants in an awkward position. Following a higher standard, while ensuring greater stability, is costly and time-consuming, and also begs the question of “if I have to build everything to a newer standard, why do we still have the buildings I put together under the old standard?” The counter to this, then, is to build status quo, at a price one is familiar with and a speed that moves faster than reconstruction aid.


(across the street… same building style)

None of these reasons justify shoddy building practices, but they do help to explain why they persist. To correct the industry, one would have to start at the top and actually enforce strict building practices nationwide. In doing so, however, one has to recognize that Haitians need housing now, construction firms need jobs now, and landlords need tenants now. Additionally, one must contend with the fact that a enforcing a costly code drives up the prices, a factor not every tenant is able to pay for. Preventing small-time Haitian companies from providing affordable housing now in the name of a higher standard that not everyone sees as necessary (despite the fact that it is) would likely lead to mass demonstrations against the imposing of red tape on working-class Haitians. Another earthquake (or series of hurricanes or even a terrible rainy season) could lead to more destruction and deaths, all seen as preventable with the proper red tape (assuming houses could have been completed in time given the new bureaucracy).

There is no easy answer, yet clearly one must be had. In the meantime, though, houses and apartment buildings will continue to go up as the builder sees fit.

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