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LeTourneau professor visits Haiti for research, rebuilding efforts

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Posted: Saturday, November 3, 2012 4:00 am

Dr. Gustavo Cortes, a LeTourneau University assistant professor of Civil Engineering, traveled to Haiti this past summer to inspect transitional shelters built for families that were left homeless after the January 2010 Haiti earthquake.

On the trip, Cortes met with former Haitian president René Préval, who served two five-year terms.

Préval held the office when the 2010 earthquake occurred.

He described to Cortes how his own home was destroyed, how he had to live with family members, and how devastating the earthquake was for the nation.

Préval said that it felt as if 300,000 of his children had died.

While in Haiti, Cortes lectured civil engineering students at the American University of the Caribbean in Les Cayes about the importance of hurricane and earthquake resistant design and presented a seminar on building in a hurricane and earthquake zone.

The seminar covered the basics of design for hurricane and earthquake resilience. Twenty-nine students attended the seminar, which was followed by a Q-and-A session.

The students also took a field trip to visit non-typical housing projects, which are more resilient to earthquakes than traditional masonry housing in Haiti. The group visited a children’s orphanage made from cargo containers.

Students were very receptive to Cortes.

One student, Jephte Douyon, wrote to Dean of Academics Jan Davis, “To meet such a person like Gustavo motivates me to do more efforts. Though he is young, he has his PhD. He is incredible. All the questions I asked cannot challenge his knowledge. Yesterday, we took a very amazing trip to different sites around and in Les Cayes. Once we got to the “Village of Hope,” we were all astonished by the house structures. They are made of galvanized sheets, said Dr. Cortes. According to him, the round shape of those houses contributes to minimize the action of the wind and the material they are made of keep(s) them cool even at the hottest moment. At the end of the trip, we visited an earthquake resistant building next to Bay Club.”

Douyon wrote that the students asked many questions about the structure and the use of piles in construction.

For the second part of the trip, Cortes worked with Medair, a Swiss-based Christian non-governmental organization.

Medair has built more than 2,500 transitional shelters for the most vulnerable families affected by the earthquake, in the region near Jacmel.

Cortes took the opportunity to help with design issues, and to inspect some of the units. The transitional shelters, as the name suggests, are shelters built immediately after the earthquake that transition from a temporary shelter to a permanent home.

The first phase of construction consists of building the foundation, floor, timber frame, bracing, metal deck, and temporary walls made from a polyethylene tarp which allows the family to quickly move into a structure which is more secure than a tent. As the family’s finances allow work to proceed, the tarp walls can be replaced with more permanent materials, converting the shelter into a permanent house.

Cortes also took samples of a column-to-foundation connector for study by his senior design team at LeTourneau University in Longview. The results of testing next semester will help the Medair team decide if the prototype connection can be used or if it needs to be modified.

Having been raised in Puerto Rico by a father in the construction business, Cortes learned about the different phases involved in construction. His degree in civil engineering gave him the analytical methods for designing houses and structures.

“It is my joy to be able to apply that knowledge and help in a tiny way the most vulnerable,” Cortes said. “This trip to Haiti was such an eye-opening experience and showed me firsthand the basic needs of the Haitian people.”

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