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Mideast edition, Sunday, March 7, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. military engineers have been assessing earthquake-damaged homes in Haiti to determine the ones to which survivors can return and the ones that should be demolished.

The goal of the inspections, in Port-au-Prince’s Turgeau neighborhood, is to persuade thousands of Haitians encamped around the nearby ruins of the National Palace to disperse, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Shaulis, a trained engineer.

“What makes it bad at the palace is the concentration of people,” Shaulis said. “It leads to trouble with sanitation and food, so this is a high-priority project.”

The 40-year-old Stanford, Va., native, who leads a team of 40 engineers, mostly from the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said surveys determined that many of those encamped at the palace came from Turgeau.

“If we assess these buildings and find that they appear to have sustained little damage, we can convince people at the camp to come home,” he said.

However, the engineers don’t tell Haitians that their homes are “safe,” he said.

“That is not prudent as professional engineers because you are just eyeballing the thing,” he said. “There’s little in the way of building codes like we have in America, so anything goes here. We can say their home appears to have very little damage.”

Another engineer, Blayne Kirsch, 46, of Salem, Wis., said the team color codes buildings as “red” (collapsed or about to collapse), “yellow” (in need of repairs) or “green.”

“Green means it’s been inspected and the earthquake didn’t make it worse than it was,” he said. “You can sleep in it, but nothing here meets U.S. standards, even if it’s green.”

On Friday, the engineers were on the streets along with Haitian linguists and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, who tagged along as security. At each house, the engineers recorded GPS coordinates, photographed the property and then walked around the building looking for cracks, collapsed sections or separation of columns, beams and walls.

Another engineer, Frank Zepka, 60, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the quality of a home’s construction can mean the difference between no damage and total collapse.

“From what I’ve seen, wooden structures are holding up better even if it’s older construction,” he said, adding that houses with steel reinforcing also fared better in the earthquake.

One of the homes inspected Friday was a two-story building where Eddy and Mary Ronny and their five children lived before the earthquake. The family now sleeps in the front yard. After a few minutes checking the building inside and out, Shaulis and another engineer, Bryan Haelsig, 50, of Poulsbo, Wash., pronounced the building “green.” However, the couple was not convinced that it was safe to sleep inside.

“People are saying that there can still be another earthquake for another year, so we are scared,” Mary Ronny said.

A few doors up the street, a clump of human hair protruded from rubble where a body had been pulled out of a collapsed school. At another house on the same street, a man told the engineers that the U.S.-based owner of a badly slanted two-story building wanted it propped up so that people could move back in.

“Tell him American engineers from the American Navy suggest that he tear it down,” Shaulis said.

A large apartment that housed five families was also “red.”

“I’m glad when we give good news and never get used to giving bad news,” Shaulis said. “People in America would be just beside themselves and shooting each other to boot.”

Owner Harold Plaisir, 30, who was living in a wood shack in the apartment block’s driveway with his neighbors, had guessed the bad news before the engineers confirmed it.

“I’m living on the street,” he said. “I’m going to break [the apartment block] down.”

Nearby workers repairing damaged houses were making concrete from piles of white sand. Haelsig said the Haitian government recently closed the quarry where the sand comes from because it makes poor concrete but that locals are using up the supplies they have left.

Another “red” building housed in Turgeau used to house a downstairs restaurant and the upstairs home where Alice Charpentier, 15, lived with her brother and parents. Despite the engineers’ warning, the family continued to watch television inside the building, although Alice said they sleep outside.

Around the corner, Haitian-American Gabrielle Toussaint-Blanc, 52, of New Jersey, was helping her mother demolish what was left of her house. The elderly woman narrowly survived along with four other occupants when the top story pancaked on top of the rooms downstairs. The neighbors were not so lucky.

“There are two bodies still in the house next door,” Toussaint-Blanc said, pointing to a pile of rocks and twisted metal. “Some children died. In the house across the street, there were also kids who died.”

Contractors quoted her $27,000 to demolish and remove her mother’s house. Toussaint-Blanc opted to manage the job herself, employing six local men who were smashing away at the concrete with sledgehammers on Friday.

Shaulis said contractors will begin to remove rubble from the neighborhood in the next few days, allowing people camped at the palace to move their tents back to where they used to live.

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