The U.S. embassy compound in Haiti withstood the January earthquake and in the aftermath became a makeshift emergency operations command center for the region. (State Department)
The State Department's embassies are built to withstand terrorist attacks and other acts of aggression in an increasingly hostile world. Yet there's another aggressor that poses just as much of a threat: Mother Nature.
A spate of devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere earlier this year brought renewed focus on the dangers posed by natural disasters. Yet State's embassies emerged largely unscathed from those events.
In fact, the embassy compound in Haiti became a makeshift emergency operations command center for the region after January's catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused widespread damage.
Many landmark buildings in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince were destroyed, including the Presidential Palace. Yet the U.S. Embassy, built in 2008 and located 15 miles north of the city center, suffered no structural damage.
"The embassy compound was an oasis in a sea of chaos going on down there," said Bernie Dennis, a structural engineer in State's Bureau of Overseas Building Operations who arrived in Haiti a week after the earthquake.
State's facilities comply with U.S. building code standards and are built to withstand seismic activity typical for the region in which facilities are located.
In addition, the buildings are designed to resume operations quickly after a natural or manmade attack, said Bill Miner, director of the overseas bureau's Office of Design and Engineering.
The U.S. Embassy in Haiti became a relief center because it was one of the few buildings still functioning in the wake of the earthquake. Like all modern embassy compounds, the embassy generates its own backup power using diesel generators and has an onsite plant for treating water pumped out of underground wells.
Since the 1980s, State has analyzed its existing owned facilities and made structural improvements as needed to guard against damage from potential earthquakes. After the December 2004 tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, State expanded the scope of this program to include the full spectrum of natural disasters: tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, landslides, mudslides and floods, for example.
Davis, who leads that effort, said State has developed a risk assessment analysis to prioritize improvements at locations facing the greatest risk. The resulting list is aligned with a similar priority list of needed security enhancements at various embassy compounds. State budget analysts use those to decide which projects to fund.
"We see seismic and natural hazards as important as the security risk," Davis said.
More problematic are the local buildings State typically leases for diplomatic residences. These homes and apartments are built to local standards that in many parts of the world are well below American standards.
In Haiti, State lost about half of its 120 leased properties because of the earthquake and aftershocks, Dennis said. One Foreign Service officer was killed when his home collapsed.
"From a residential standpoint, Haiti was a disaster," Dennis said.
State is seeking $84.5 million in supplemental appropriations this year to build 150 homes in Haiti that would replace those properties destroyed in the earthquake and provide additional safe housing for federal employees stationed there.
"There's a heightened awareness now in the Foreign Service," Miner said. "People just understand that these natural hazards are a way of the world and, getting into a position of leadership, you want to make sure that people are prepared for things like this."