Gone in a matter of seconds

by L. Joshua Sosland
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The rebuilding of a mill destroyed (by fire, typically) is never easy, but the circumstances become infinitely more complicated when the destruction is but a small part of a larger catastrophe such as the one that decimated Haiti.
Interviews of executives at Les Moulins d’Haiti (LMH) detail anguish in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Haiti, a sense of desperation as the company looked for ways to ensure the country was not cut off from its flour supply and a rebuilding process made more difficult by a range of challenges that emerged after the earthquake itself.
Christian Fucina, managing director of LMH, had left work for the day a few minutes before the earthquake struck. He recalled that when he felt the quake during his commute home, his first impression was of an event far less dire than what proved to be the reality.
“You could see the visible wave from the earthquake, but I did not know what it was and did not realize what was happening,” he said. “As I drove farther, I began to notice damaged homes and buildings. Then, when I drove to a high point outside the city and saw the massive clouds of dust over Port au Prince, I realized it was very serious.”
Neither Fucina nor James L. Gutsch, senior vice-president of engineering at Seaboard Corp., initially was worried about the sturdy mill, which had been built in the late 1950s.
“We lost power and phone service, so I did not find out until 9 p.m. that the mill was destroyed,” Fucina said. “I couldn’t believe it. The mill was such a strong building.”
Similarly Gutsch said he was uncomprehending when he received a call at Seaboard headquarters in Merriam, Kansas, U.S., from an employee who lives at a concrete plant located near the LMH complex.
“He told me the mill was down, and to tell the truth I didn’t believe him,” he said. “Nothing could be that bad. But it was exactly as he described it.”
Peter Harsveld, production manager at LMH, had stepped out of the mill moments before the earthquake and was still on the property when it hit.
“It was not even 10 seconds, and it was gone,” he said.
Fire was responsible for some of the casualties at the mill during the earthquake. Giant water tanks installed for protection proved useless.
“The lines from the tanks were ruptured,” Harsveld said. “And there was no electricity. The fire was caused by sparks and dust. Obviously there were no firefighters we could call. We fought the fire by hand, with buckets.”
Dark days
Thirteen of the 200 employees of LMH ultimately died when the building collapsed.
“After the collapse, three of the employees were heard alive, at least briefly,” Gutsch said. “One survived for several days, and there was a tremendous effort to save him. I flew in by helicopter a couple days after the quake and will never forget the sight. The mill staff had tunneled by hand through rebar and concrete and steel trying to reach survivors. It wasn’t like you could call 911. All the while there were major tremors, aftershocks making what they were doing incredibly dangerous. As bad as that was, when they finally got through, after days, the body of another employee was blocking their path. They had to cut through the remains to reach their living colleague. He survived only for only a few hours after being rescued from the rubble.”
Recalling the victims, Harsveld said the group had a range of tenures with some having worked at LMH for longer than 10 years (dating to the reopening of the mill) and “a couple of younger guys, too.”
The head miller and the assistant head miller were among the 13 victims. A 14th employee was killed at his home by the earthquake, together with his wife and child.
While it was necessary to begin discussions immediately about the future, including how to bring flour into the port, and begin work cleaning the site, rescue and recovery were the principal focus in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Gutsch said. He described the combination of the two as surreal.
“The first days were especially dark,” he said. “We needed to walk through the complex with insurance adjusters, but there was still hope of finding survivors. So it was very quiet as we walked the property. Christian and the other employees would stop every few steps and listen intently for sounds of life. All I could hear was wind. You’d see such a look of helplessness on the faces of everyone. It’s a painful, indelible memory.”
The weeks and months afterward were not much better.
It was during the debris cleanup that the remaining bodies were found beneath the rubble. Mill workers built coffins used for the remains. Heavy equipment was not used for the first week, while hope remained that survivors would be found.
“In the end we spent months removing wheat and cleaning debris,” Gutsch said. “It was far more difficult than building a greenfield mill.”
The rebuilding process
A decision to rebuild the mill was made quickly. The morning after the earthquake, Gutsch called Rene Steiner, president of Bühler, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., to discuss different possibilities.
“We even thought about bringing in a portable milling unit to help keep the market needs met,” he said.
A contract was quickly signed with Bühler to equip the mill together with T.E. Ibberson Co., Hopkins, Minnesota, U.S., for the reconstruction. A preliminary flow chart and a budget were drafted. Equipment was ordered, all Bühler, and manufactured in their factories in China, the United States and Europe in order to expedite the overall delivery.
During the cleanup phase, Seaboard’s technical staff drafted a plan to rebuild the mill on the existing footprint. As debris was cleared, evidence mounted suggesting the foundation had survived with little damage. No major cracks appeared, generating a theory that the quake’s motion caused the building’s collapse rather than a deterioration of the soil’s load bearing capacity.
“The cleaning section of the mill was sheared away from the building at the column bases above the foundation, which supported this theory,” Gutsch said. “By the time we bored into the ground to test the soil, morale was beginning to improve. There was a real sense of ‘maybe we can do something.’”
The optimism proved misplaced. Both at the port and beneath the mill, geotechnical engineers discovered evidence of liquefaction — when soil becomes fluidized and loses its load bearing capacity.
“We had hoped for a 14-month timeline for the entire rebuilding,” Gutsch said. “The equipment was there in time, but the foundation issue added at least seven months to the project.”
With that finding, the existing foundation was demolished and removed, the soil damaged by the earthquake was excavated and replaced with new fill brought to restore load bearing capacity.
To accelerate the entire project, a man camp was installed between the mill site and the port with living quarters for 130 employees. The skilled workforce was drawn from all over the world and peaked at just over 120. The camp featured sleeping quarters, a cafeteria, a recreation room with television, billiards table and laundry facility. It continued operating through March 2012.
“Amid all that was going on in Haiti, we had to create our own bubble within the complex to keep the project moving,” Gutsch said.
The executives involved were seasoned veterans. Fucina has led the Haitian mill for 11 years. A native of eastern France, he worked for Continental Grain Co. for many years.
“I hadn’t intended to go into milling,” he said. “I was a credit manager at Continental’s flour mill in Guadalupe and took on more and more responsibility over time.”
Over the years, he held positions with Continental in New York, Curacao and Ecuador and also had a second assignment in Guadalupe before joining the Haiti mill. He was named general director of LMH in 2001.
Fucina said no mill employees were laid off following the earthquake, though a significant number left in the weeks and months after the disaster. Those who remained performed a wide range of duties from administrative assignments to cleanup and work as participants within the man camp.
Still, even after the work began in earnest, the project did not escape significant further bumps.
In early November 2010, Hurricane Tomas struck Haiti. While no further damage was sustained by buildings at LMH, a large volume of wheat was damaged by the storm, requiring still further cleanup.
While the complex’s port was damaged, it was still usable immediately after the earthquake, Fucina said. The wharf, a little more than 100 meters in length, proved crucial for the delivery of food and medical supplies in the aftermath of the quake, since the main port at Port au Prince was not usable (and still has yet to be fully restored). The port also was invaluable for the mill reconstruction, providing a delivery point for everything from milling equipment and concrete pump trucks to the man-camp temporary housing.
Eight months after the earthquake, after Port au Prince partly reopened, Seaboard closed the port for repair for nine months.
While upbeat on the outlook for Haiti and for the company itself, each of the executives interviewed still seemed burdened in different ways by their memories of the 2010 earthquake and its aftermath. Harsveld, who spent several years as a technical baker before joining LMH, said he benefited from a reassignment to another mill in the Caribbean (in British Guyana) for about a year beginning in mid-2010.
“The head of the mill had been injured in a car accident,” he said. “It was good to get away.”
The death toll from the January 2010 earthquake has been estimated by the government of Haiti at 316,000, which would make the quake the second deadliest in history (eclipsed only by an 8.0 magnitude quake in 1556 in Shensi, China). Other sources have suggested the Haitian government figure is exaggerated, with one estimate from Dutch sources placing the number of deaths under 100,000.
Asked for his thoughts on the figures, Fucina seemed startled by the smaller estimate and paused before responding.
“You can’t imagine the number of bodies,” he said. “I think more than 500,000 people perished here.”