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After the earthquake, buildings in Haiti were spray-painted a color based on their structural integrity.

Red meant demolish. Green meant safe. Yellow meant parts of the building were salvageable.

That was the mission of University of Montana professor Tom Sullivan, who was called to duty to help assess the damage to buildings in the earthquake-ravaged island nation. Sullivan, a former structural engineer turned cultural geographer, spent two weeks in Haiti after receiving an urgent e-mail giving him three days notice before boarding a plane.

"It was rare to find a building that wasn't damaged in some way," said Sullivan during an hourlong presentation as part of the University of Montana's International Week. About 50 people showed up to hear his talk about relief efforts in the Third World country.

The rainy season is quickly approaching, which concerns both Haitian citizens and government officials. Roads without proper drainage systems will wash away the tent cities and there are concerns about the environmental effects. The need for structural engineers is great.

"You become one of the most wanted people in Haiti," he said.

Sullivan volunteered his efforts through the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians and Mercy Corps, two non-governmental organizations.

He partnered with an architect from New York to evaluate upward of 50 buildings in Port-au-Prince and Petit-Goave, located near the epicenter of the Jan. 12 earthquake that has left millions in need of emergency aid and the city in need of extensive rebuilding.

Their first priority was government buildings, then schools and, last, commercial structures. Occasionally they would assess a home. In one instance, that meant a tent held up by wooden stakes, Sullivan said.

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Much of the country's buildings are made to withstand hurricanes, which is why they are all built entirely of concrete - a heavy, damage-prone material in an earthquake. The absence of building codes or enforcement measures, along with inadequate building materials, made for devastating scenes, Sullivan said.

"I was shocked that some stood up as well as they did," he said. "Every school I saw in Port-au-Prince was down."

Entire hillsides would be covered in a landslide of concrete.

"It just brings tears to my eyes," he said.

Despite caution tape surrounding dangerous buildings, Haitians would be standing on the rooftops, trying to salvage the rebar to sell for money. Sullivan said it was amazing how life has continued - markets and clothing stands are open for business. Church services went on despite having no church.

There were several obstacles that had to be overcome in his work, including politics and language. At times even historic preservation conflicted with safety. Haitians are distrustful of their government, so Sullivan's group would get kicked off sites, especially when accompanied by the local city engineer.

No matter, Sullivan is already planning to return. He's also in the process of building a digital map using GPS coordinates he took while on the ground so that a new batch of structural engineers on their way to Haiti can know what buildings have already been assessed.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@

 

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