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At Wentworth, survivors learn to build a stronger Haiti

By Alex Katz
Globe Correspondent / June 24, 2010

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Charles-Edouard Jean was in the middle of an afternoon shower in his Port-au-Prince home when the floor began to tremble beneath him and his wife let out a scream. The most destructive earthquake in Haiti’s history had struck.

As Jean, his wife, and their four children ran outside, they saw the house next door had collapsed into a pile of debris, their neighbors crushed beneath the rubble. Jean would soon learn that his brother had suffered a similar fate a short distance away.

“We were hopeless,’’ he said.

Five months later, Jean is taking steps to ensure that future disasters will not wreak the same havoc on his nation. At Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, the 41-year-old civil engineer recently joined 38 other Haitians for an intensive two-week course that teaches project and construction management in an effort to help restore their ravaged nation.

“We need to empower Haitians to contribute to the reconstruction of their own country,’’ said Pierre Arthur Elysee, an assistant professor at Wentworth and a Port-au-Prince native who helped found the “Train the Trainer’’ program. “This is one of the more significant efforts toward the rebuilding of Haiti.’’

After the January quake, Elysee and Wentworth colleague Magdy Ellabidy were intent on helping in any way possible. While a flood of food and clothing donations poured into the country, the two noticed that little attention was being paid to a problem that has dogged Haiti for years: shoddy construction.

Amid decades of political instability, the country has never developed strict construction standards or government oversight. “Government officials close their eyes instead of regulating projects,’’ Elysee said.

Accordingly, the professors devised a program that would help change the country’s status quo, teaching a diverse array of engineers the proper construction methods to erect stronger structures. Ellabidy said the classes adhere to the old proverb that in part says, “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’’

After receiving support from Wentworth’s provost and president, the program began recruiting participants with the help of a seven-member committee in Haiti assembled by Elysee.

Made up of professionals involved with the private sector, local government, and education, the committee reviewed more than 200 applications before selecting the engineers who would head to Boston, which has a large Haitian community, to study at the Huntington Avenue institute.

All of the participants are college-educated, most are fluent in English, and almost all have at least three years of work experience. Women make up about 25 percent of the group, per Wentworth’s request.

“We want to make sure that women take part in technology,’’ Elysee said.

The participants took challenging courses on everything from civil engineering technology to construction project administration.

During a recent lab on group communications, participants hunched over computer stations as they split into teams to collaborate on presentations. While such exercises are surely never without conflict, instructors remarked at the participants’ proficiency.

“Based on the questions they ask, they certainly understand the material,’’ said Todd Johnson, an assistant professor who volunteered to be an instructor.

Other instructors took note of how the participants became progressively more active and engaged throughout the course of the program. While voicing criticism about construction efforts can often lose engineers their jobs in Haiti — even when it involves safety — it was highly encouraged at Wentworth.

Associate professor Cindy P. Stevens said she left that task of critiquing presentations to her students, who graduated on Friday.

Once they realized it was acceptable, they were more than willing to give their colleagues a piece of their mind.

This was certainly a significant achievement for the participants, who will need to rely on this newfound sense of audacity to change the culture of Haiti’s construction industry.

In 2008, following the collapse of a school in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the city’s mayor estimated about 60 percent of the buildings were poorly built and unsafe.

During the January quake, more lives could have been saved had the buildings been constructed according to universally accepted standards, Jean said.

Now, it is up to him to guarantee they are.

“This training will help change the way we are doing things, the way we are building, and the way we are thinking too,’’ he said.

Alex Katz can be reached at akatz@globe.com.

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