Isle engineer inspects 'war zone'
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
Hawai'i engineer Steven Baldridge went to Haiti last month with a team of experts to evaluate the effects of a large earthquake on buildings and to help design structures to withstand similar disasters.
But because of the devastation that the Jan. 12 earthquake caused, the reconnaissance trip turned into a humanitarian mission as Baldridge was asked to evaluate hospitals , schools and other structures to determine if they were safe for people to re-enter. Baldridge, 48, said he inspected 25 to 30 buildings over 10 days and all of them had some sort of damage.
"It was supposed to be reconnaissance, but when we got there we saw that it wasn't really appropriate at the time," said Baldridge, president of Baldridge & Associates Structural Engineering. "There were more pressing needs."
He arrived in Haiti on Jan. 24 with engineers from the University of Washington, Auburn University and Georgia Tech, and a seismologist from the U.S. Geological Survey. As a director of the Applied Technology Council, Baldridge was contacted by the Earthquake Engineering Institute to inspect the damaged structures, find the weaknesses in their design, and apply those lessons to prevent similar disasters.
Once on the ground, however, Baldridge knew his expertise was needed immediately because of the poor conditions of many of the buildings in Haiti. His first impression was that Haiti looked like a "war zone."
"I have a hard time imagining just running around a place like that taking photographs. It's just not right," he said.
One of the first things he was asked to do was inspect a hospital that was damaged by the earthquake. He said patients were being cared for outdoors until he inspected the structure and said it was OK to treat people in the hospital.
But Baldridge said not many buildings and structures were able to withstand the 7.0-magnitude quake. He visited the heavily damaged docks at the port at Port-au-Prince, estimated that "every other building" in the capital suffered major damage, and journeyed to a small town called Lagon, which Baldridge said was "totally devastated."
He inspected a warehouse where relief supplies were stored and said that building "was about ready to fall down." Baldridge issued a report to the military that the building could continue to be used, but with extreme caution.
"You're in this odd situation where you want to make sure food gets out to people and yet you want to make sure someone operating the forklift or a truck in that building isn't another casualty," he said.
Baldridge's team lived in a tent on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. Although the accommodations weren't grand, he didn't complain, given what was going on in the rest of the country where an estimated 1 million people are homeless.
He said one odd sight was the former Hawai'i Superferry Alakai in port to provide relief duty in Haiti. The high-speed passenger and vehicle ferry ended service in the Islands last year, and Baldridge worried that a vessel like the Alakai might be needed here someday.
"To see the Hawaii Superferry painted with the same painting it had on while it was here doing relief work, we kind of missed that opportunity here in the Islands having that additional resource if there were a bad disaster here," he said.
Because of flight delays, Baldridge spent an extra day in Haiti. He used that time to help the U.S. military deliver relief supplies.
He said the experience and interaction with the Haitians will be something that will stay with him for a long time. Baldridge said that despite the disaster, he was surprised that so many Haitians remained positive and upbeat.
"One of the main things is you can see the people who have so little can still be happy. In the U.S., it seems like people who have so much are still unhappy and dysfunctional," Baldridge said. "Even though they're in a very difficult situation , there's a lot of smiling and laughter. It's pretty uplifting to see that that spirit isn't totally broken."