The devastation Busser saw — in terms of the destruction of both human life and property — was almost unbelievable.

by Lou Mancinelli
When a massive earthquake struck Haiti less than 20 miles from its capital, Port-Au-Prince, last January, humanitarians around the world wanted to mobilize efforts and offer their services to victims.

Three weeks after the earthquake, Mt. Airy resident and retired architect Robert Busser, 72, who was raised in Germantown, flew to Haiti to offer his architectural services from his University of Pennsylvania and Yale University education and experience through the Habitat For Humanity organization.

For 10 weeks, beginning three weeks after the initial quake, Busser trained 30 local engineers in the Cabaret region of Haiti in earthquake evaluation. He created an original document later translated in French and Creole that helped teach local engineers how to indentify if a damaged building could be occupied and repaired or had to be demolished. Those engineers in turn trained 500 additional individuals in the evaluation process.

While there, Busser also designed an archetype for transitional structures. Before leaving, he helped construct about 40 of the now almost 2,000 9 x 20 square-foot (17.5 square meters) homes that were designed to become permanent structures. They were built according to standards put forth in the United Nations’ SPHERE Project (a 2004 initiative to develop standard criteria for disaster relief responses).

Busser presented a video and photos during a discussion about those 10 weeks in Haiti on Jan. 12 at St. Paul’s Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave. His talk also focused on current conditions in Haiti and the current cholera epidemic that affects more than 100,000 Haitians.

“The important thing is to let people know there still is an enormous need in Haiti for both money and skills,” said Busser, who started Habitat for Humanity in Germantown in 1993 after years of involvement with the group known as St. Paul’s Rehabbers. “We were under a great deal of pressure,” said Brusser about the experience in Haiti. “There were thousands of people living in tents, and there still are.”

Busser developed a design for transitional homes strong enough to withstand hurricane and earthquake conditions (category 2 and level 5, respectively) that could later be made into permanent homes. The initial structures were designed to be built in one day by a team of trained Haitian builders.

Local labor was found in a technical school in Cabaret. It was done by mostly young men in their 20s and a few older men, according to Busser. “They were not only happy about doing the work,” Busser said, “but they were also skilled and worked extremely hard.”

The frames of the structures are long pieces of material made of a combination of wood and steel fabricated by local workers. Once connected, the foundations of the structures were steeped in five-gallon buckets of concrete. Busser worked with 15 expatriates who helped test the designs. Each structure costs $1,200 to $1,500.

That only 2,000 structures have been built in an area where Busser and other aid workers were serving a population of over 20,000 speaks to the difficult circumstances still facing Haitians. While tarps currently serve as the exterior of the initial structures, when they become permanent structures there will be a concrete block exterior and a metal sloping roof over the house one way, and over the porch the other way, in the center of which will be an air flow system.

It is difficult to imagine a family of four or five or more living inside these structures that are about the size of a large kitchen or family room. But structures that withstand hurricane and earthquake-intensity wind and rain are better than tents where the only foundation is often a large metal stake and piece of rope. These structures will stay up, barring another intense natural catastrophe, at least according to Busser’s calculations.

The structures were built on rural farmland that members from local communities agreed was a suitable location for the project and was not subject to flooding, according to Busser. Other structures were built on the grounds where homes used to stand.

“We were very careful to get the OK to use the farmland and to make sure it wasn’t land local communities needed to survive,” said Busser. Families who received the transitional structures were all families who had lost their homes. They were selected by neighbors living in Village de Dercy, a nearby village where Habitat for Humanity in an earlier mission built 187 permanent homes. (Of those 187, only six were damaged by the earthquake.)

In addition to Busser’s work, St. Paul’s Church, in cooperation with Rotary and Shelter Box, Inc., sent two shelter boxes to Haiti. These provided disaster relief shelter and lifesaving equipment for 20 people. All totaled, 28,417 shelter boxes were sent to provide relief in Haiti.

“I think a lot of people have forgotten about Haiti,” said Busser, who is preparing to teach a course about the experience in the architecture school at Philadelphia University, a course he already taught at UPENN.

It’s important to care about Haiti “because we are human beings full of compassion,” said Busser, a married man, father of three sons and grandfather of six, who has lived in Mt. Airy for 20 years. “Part of that is caring for human beings who are not as fortunate as we are.”

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