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Homes Designed for Extended Families Collapsed in Haitian Quake

New America Media, Commentary, Adolphe Saint-Louis Posted: Jan 18, 2010

Editor's Note: Adolphe Saint-Louis, 49, is a Haitian who survived the recent earthquake. In a recorded interview, which was transcribed, translated into English and edited, he describes how building practices made housing vulnerable to the worst damage of the quake.

My name is Adolphe Saint-Louis. Until just a few days ago I lived here in Port-au-Prince in the neighborhood of Delmas. I had a small business with my cousin. We bought food supplies from the Dominican Republic and sold them here in our area. We made a good living and we were comfortable. I have been blessed with many children, and all of my children have made me proud.

Recently we celebrated the wedding of my oldest daughter, and I was happy to build an apartment for her and her husband to share. As it is usually done here in Haiti, we built the apartment on top of our house.

In Haiti, when you want to add to your home, you build on top of the roof, which is concrete held up by pillars or strong walls on the floor below. A mason builds new walls of concrete blocks to make a room or to enclose the entire area to add a new floor to the house. Some blocks have holes to allow the air to circulate and if the mason is talented he will use the blocks to make a pretty pattern or type of decorative window. The weight-bearing blocks are always solid and they have metal rebar running through the middle to support the structure of the house. When the addition is finished, the mason will leave the rebar exposed so that another floor can be added later if it is needed.

This custom of building from the bottom up has served Haiti well for many years. Although it has made our country appear to be in a perpetual state of construction, the practice of adding on to your home when it is needed has allowed extended families to live close together. It is not unheard of for three or four generations of a family to be sharing the same roof! Living together with grandparents and grandchildren means that our kids are always looked after and they always have cousins and siblings to play with. It means that we are able to help each other even when times are difficult because of the high cost of living.

This building practice has also allowed those who do not have the funds to build an entire addition to add to their house as they are able. For instance, maybe your child marries and they need a place to be for them and their husband. You can build just a room on the roof of your house and put a tin roof on it. Then when you have more money you can add more rooms or finish the entire floor and create a new roof for the building.

That is what we did at my house. We added some rooms and a new roof to our house. There was a place for my nephew to live in the front and a large room for my daughter and her husband in the back. The way we had done it, it was so pleasant. We put many plants and flowers in pots around the side of the staircase outside because my daughter loves nature very much. She was so happy when she saw the place that we made for her.

But when the earthquake came, we lost everything. So did all the people in my neighborhood. The floors of the houses fell, one on top of the other. By now, everyone around the world has seen the pictures, but you cannot imagine what it looks like until you see it with your own eyes. Thank God, we are all okay. No one in our family is dead, although my nephew and his friend were slightly injured when they escaped the house.

Now everyone is too afraid to sleep inside. Every time there is another small earthquake, the buildings groan in anticipation of falling again. Now we are sleeping in the street in front of our home. When I run quickly inside to grab some clothes or some food from that can be salvage, I hold my breath because I dont know if I will make it out or if everything will fall down around me. We are now a city with no home. I dont know what will happen. The Haitian way of building homes cannot work anymore because now no one will trust that they are safe indoors. What will happen to us? Where will we sleep? I dont know because right now these are questions that only God can answer.

Related Articles:

Rush to Aid Haiti's Earthquake Victims

After the Quake, Depend on Women

Fate of Undocumented Chinese in Haiti Remains Unknown

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