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Cover of the Spring 2010 issue




From helpers to helpless

Eyleen Chou in Haiti.

Eyleen Chou in Haiti. view larger image

What it was like to be in Haiti when the earthquake struck

The January 2010 Engineers Without Borders Haiti Project trip was supposed to be a simple assessment trip. However, it happened to be scheduled from January 8-14, 2010. The catastrophic earthquake occurred during our trip and it was a life-changing event.

There were six travelers from UW-Madison who went on this trip: five engineering students, and one professional mentor. We had prepared all semester for a final assessment on a waterpipeline that served Bayonnais, a community of 10,000 people, clean drinking water. One section of pipe had been destroyed in June 2009 by flood damage. Our job was to design and build a new pipe crossing that would stretch the pipe across a small river.

The first few days of our trip were quite normal for an EWB Haiti trip. We had an smooth, stress-free pick-up at the Port-au-Prince airport on Saturday with Moses driving the bright yellow ICB school bus, church on Sunday, scouting and surveying on the first two work days, and continual meetings with community members and community leaders.

Eyleen Chou with a young Haitian girl.

Eyleen Chou with a young Haitian girl. view larger image

However, Tuesday, January 12 is a day all of us will remember vividly. It was particularly windy. Very late in the afternoon, John Lee, Tyler Lark and I sat on a concrete retaining wall and watched as Michael Hoeger, Randi Schieber and Alysen Kohlnhofer finished surveying the area. Theanaud, a student teacher at the local school, had joined us that afternoon; he was done teaching his seventhgraders at the school for the day. We were talking about what kind of math he had been teaching.

All of a sudden, there was a strong gust of wind, but it felt mightier than the other ones that day. The retaining wall felt like it was resonating from the force of the wind. It felt like how little ball bearings look on a manufacturing line, vibrating along the conveyor, shifting, bouncing and trembling. It was only for a few seconds. The kids nearby seemed to scream with delight. “Tremble terre! Tremble terre!” Michael had fallen over from his perch with the graduated rod. Alysen and Randi were yelling back and forth. For the four of us on the retaining wall, all of our eyes seemed to widen with curiosity. Theanaud said with a grin, “C’est un tremblement de terre. Vous avez jamais senti les tremblements de terre?”

Of course we’d never felt an earthquake before! It was exhilarating. We come from one of the most stable areas on a tectonic plate. I quickly asked him in French if there are earthquakes regularly in Haiti. He said that they probably occur once a year, but never this strong.

We hopped off our once subtly trembling retaining wall and joined the others surveying. Everyone was still talking excitedly. It seemed our work was done for the day, as the bubble in the level of the theodolite was still moving back and forth in the same rhythm as the vibrations. We had no choice but to pack up and head back to the guesthouse.

After dinner, I checked my E-mail and the subject lines and message previews screamed at me:

Are you ok?
Hope you’re safe
You are OK, right??
Are you alive?

I quickly Googled “earthquake Haiti.” At the next moment, John came striding through the common room with his laptop open. An article from the New York Times showing a map of Haiti: “Haitian earthquake causes hospital collapse.” The words seemed to glare with the black, powerful font. We all fell silent and could do nothing but keep reading.

The rest of the trip progressed much faster than we could have ever anticipated. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake had brutally severed the main artery of Haiti. Port-au-Prince was flattened. Actionnel Fleurisma, the main community leader, kept coming in and out of the guesthouse with reports from the radio that was playing in his truck outside. “The National Palace collapsed.” “Government buildings collapsed.” “Schools collapsed.” “Hospitals collapsed.” We Americans searched the internet for stories, each one seeming more horrific than the last.

On Wednesday, we decided the best thing to do was to continue with our project work. We were 70 miles away from Port-au-Prince; there was nothing we could do. None of us had any experience in aid work; we were only engineering students. On the way to our surveying site, we saw that the temporarily repaired pipe crossing had broken due to the earthquake.

After the post-earthquake pipe break, we and the Haitian subcontractors decided that we would work together to fix the pipe that day. From noon to 5 p.m., a fantastic collaboration occurred, Haitians and Americans working side by side: We discussed possible solutions, took measurements, lined up the steel pipe, removed the cemented threads from the broken pieces, lifted the 20-foot length of pipe into the support brackets, cut the 4-inch pipe with only a hack saw, adjusted the coupling to the new steel pipe, attached the pieces of pipe, tightened the gaskets on coupling, and waited anxiously to hear the air flow through the air release valve.

We, Haitians and Americans alike, were elated when we saw the project come together. Bayonnais would be getting fresh drinking water from the spring source once again. Everyone was congratulating each other. Warm, energetic handshakes were being shared; we couldn’t help but smile. Our success, exhaustion and hunger from not having lunch created an interesting exhilaration. How quickly that feeling would fade.

We walked back to the OFCB Ministries church and school grounds and soon saw that Actionnel’s white truck had returned. Actionnel had left early that morning with three other OFCB representatives to go to Port-au-Prince to find students from Bayonnais who had been studying at the university-level in the capital city. Everyone had heard the night before of the extent of the damage to the buildings in Port-au-Prince; these students’ lives had never been so uncertain.

Three of us saw the truck pull up and decided it was best to let the community have its time to hear the news that Actionnel had to bring. We rounded the corner of the guesthouse and distracted ourselves with checking the spigots fed by the water main we had fixed earlier that day. Night was slowly falling. We continued to walk the loop to the driveway leading to the church. All of a sudden, we were hearing cries. We could not tell whether they were cries of joy or of severe sorrow. As we walked up to the church, the confusion and chaos only grew. I could not tell if people were saying li pa vene or li vene. That word “pa” was the difference in “they came back” or “they did not come back.” Then, it was clear: A woman had collapsed, sprawled across the church steps, screaming and sobbing. It was as if all of her muscles had failed her. The students had not returned from Port-au-Prince.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about the trip to Haiti was leaving. It was not all that difficult to physically leave the country — but rather, it was heartbreaking to leave so quickly and helplessly. All of us wished we could have helped in the relief process. All of us wanted to stay. But it was best for us to leave and not be a burden on the community.

Eyleen Chou; Senior, mechanical engineering; president, UW-Madison Engineers Without Borders.

Eyleen Chou view larger image

Our role and contribution will be for years to come. Engineers Without Borders strives to create long-term, sustainable projects. Our future projects for Bayonnais, Haiti, will help the community recover long-term. It may be a clinic that provides jobs and healthcare for people in the community, it may be a small-scale hydroelectric generator that provides electricity to students who need light to study, it may be a drastic reforestation project to restore nutrients to the soil.

We have many projects coming up, but no matter which ones we work on, we will always be working to improve the quality of life in Bayonnais.

Contact Chou at for more information about the Haiti project or about Engineers Without Borders.

— Eyleen Chou
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