Editor's note: Author Chris Stockwell is a senior project engineer with Morley Builders, a general contractor, in Santa Monica, Calif. Stockwell visited Haiti shortly before and after the deadly earthquake earlier this year. He offers a unique perspective on the country's masonry construction practices.

In December 2009, a contactor friend and I traveled to Haiti to distribute Christmas boxes to the school children, staff, and orphans at Three Angels Children's Relief. During the visit, we evaluated the Three Angels campus and several other structures to understand the local construction practices in order to create a building and development plan for the organization. We learned quite a few things about construction in the country.

First, the primary form of construction in Haiti is concrete block masonry for walls and decks, and rock masonry for site walls and foundations. Typically, the block masonry walls are constructed with mortar joints (often with gaps), and then covered with 1 to 2 inches of cement plaster to act as the bonding agent on the interior and exterior of the building.

Second, we learned that Haiti has not adopted any international building codes, and we were unable to determine if there are any local or national building codes in place. If there are, they are not followed or enforced.

This was definitely a change for me. Before my visit to Haiti, I had just completed work on the Madame Tussauds Hollywood building in Los Angeles for Morley Builders. This building has two exterior structural block walls that spiral in a helix fashion to meet at the top with a flame-shaped window placed between the two walls, and an additional convex block wall. We were able to build this complex structure, and still meet the stringent structural and seismic requirements of the California Building Code.

The day the earth shook

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ravaged Haiti, with its epicenter near the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Destruction was rampant, and the final death toll may be in the hundreds of thousands. Buildings are being searched even many months later to remove rubble, debris, and human remains.

The day after the quake, the Three Angels staff and board asked me to return with a team to assess the state of the orphanage and school facilities. My employer, Morley Builders, generously offered the seismic retrofitting expertise of their superintendents, by e-mail or phone, as well as their many contacts with structural engineers.

After an arduous journey, our team finally arrived in the country on Saturday and set off to begin our evaluation. Traveling through the streets, it was amazing to see several block structures still standing, while many I had seen only a few weeks earlier were flattened. It was evident that many of the block in the structures had either crumbled to dust or exploded from the center outward, sending debris several feet away.

We located the orphanage and immediately began to evaluate the school, orphanage, and medical clinic. Although the buildings at the compound had survived quite well, many of the neighboring houses and structures had been destroyed. One of these was the Caribbean Market, which received much media attention. It was only a block away.