It Was Just a Site Survey…

This article was written in 2007, three years before a massive earthquake was to affect the lives of more than three million people. According to Wikipedia, the Haitian government reports that because of the earthquake, an estimated 230,000 people died, 300,000 were injured, and 1,000,000 made homeless. They also estimate that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged. As you read this story, imagine what the facts are now.


by David N Marquardt

Probably one of the most common projects any surveyor will work on in his/her career is a site survey. It may be named something slightly different, such as an as-built plan, plot plan, or site plan, but essentially the scope of work covers three basic tasks:
  • determine and confirm the parcel boundaries,
  • survey everything you see (and when buried facilities are involved, things you don’t see) to those boundaries, and
  • survey in enough ground and facility elevations to determine grades, cuts/fills, or slab elevations, general topography as needed.
Depending on the scope of a project, it can range from the very simple to the extremely detailed, when you get questions from the project engineer such as, “You’re charging me that much for THIS?” Don’t sell yourself short—a well-done site survey is a successful foundation to any engineering project. It is a shame that many surveyors don’t get to see the finished product or even as it’s being finished. I participated in one where I got that chance.

In October 2006 I attended a fundraising dinner in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for an orphanage in Haiti called God’s Littlest Angels, one of the best run in Haiti, like a mini-children’s hospital, complete with donated ICU equipment. I was talking to the directors of the orphanage, John and Dixie Bickel, an American couple from Illinois. They told me that the costs, logistics, and quality of caring for 180 orphans/abandoned children in three large houses (currently being rented), were getting to the point where they would be better off to build their own complex.

I suggested they get in touch with a few colleagues at EMiCanada when that time came. At the time they had their eye on a piece of land, but that was it. To make an already incredible story short, they raised the money by the following December to purchase the land and made an application to EMi for charitable engineering work.

EMi (Engineering Ministries International) is like Engineers/Doctors Without Borders. It’s a non-denominational, non-profit, Christian-based organization of professional engineers, architects, and technicians from varied countries who have made a choice to use their skills and their talents for the betterment of mankind all over the world.

With more than 800 projects to date in 80 different countries (through EMI-International, based in Colorado Springs, U.S.), hospitals, churches, orphanages, and schools in places like Manila, Thailand, Uganda, India, Ukraine, and Haiti, this group of men and women have pooled their time and talents to create small miracles and to give a bit of hope to someone at their own expense. And as I have discovered over the last few years, EMi is very well organized, and the safety of their full-time staff and volunteers is of paramount importance, wherever in the world they may be.

EMi taught me what a “mission” is really all about. I always thought, in order to be of any use to mankind, you should be a doctor or a nurse or a Mother Theresa, one of incredible faith and courage. Not a native Alberta-boy land surveyor.  I was wrong.

Preparing for this trip was an exercise in team organization for our leader, Kevin Weins, who looked after accommodations, flights, security details, and incidentals for the orphanage. For us volunteers, it was the usual passports, shots (typhoid, malaria, hepatitis A and B), and, oh yes, our equipment and personal gear. With the current baggage restrictions, to get all my survey equipment and personal stuff into two bags with a maximum weight of 50 lbs each was a challenge. Want a suggestion if you find yourself in a similar situation? (My surveyor colleagues will love this one!) Find an engineer who is traveling light and give him an extra bag to carry—the heavier one of course!

In all seriousness, that indeed is what I did, but for a charitable reason. An extra 20 to 30lbs of my baggage weight was in the form of vitamins, cough syrups, antibiotics, and other supplies that people had donated for the orphanage, and I asked someone else to carry that weight for me. I can’t comment on the legality of this, but sometimes you try to do what your heart says is right and pray it works out; this time it did.

Saturday May, 26th was my arrival day in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it was 107° F with 95 percent humidity on the tarmac. Eight years ago to the day, when I was first there, the weather was the same, but the atmosphere was a lot different. The shanty town that had been within 30m of the edge of the runway was now gone, as was the stench. The airport was no longer decrepit but a rather nice place to land, complete with a Caribbean band, and the washrooms were no longer a health hazard. The mass of poverty-stricken humanity that once surrounded us in the airport parking lot asking to carry our bags for money or wanting to sell us stuff was now on the other side of a new fence, with security patrols, and the crowd was smaller, too. The United Nations has had a very visible presence since the ousting of Aristide a few years ago, and these first-glance changes are noticeable. Unfortunately, after looking a little deeper, I learned that not much else had changed in Haiti.

On Sunday was service at a local church, near our guesthouse quarters in an area called Petionville, and our first trip to the site to scout. Monday we got down to business.

As usual, the survey party was on the road to the site by 7 a.m. The site itself was at an elevation of about 1310m, about 2km from where we were staying but 8km by road and about 10km from the ocean. It’s about 5534km (3459mi) from where I call home (Latitude 18d 28’21.4” N, Longitude 72d 16’19.9” W for you Google Earth aficionados), in a place near Fort Jacques, Haiti, in the mountains just south of Port-au-Prince.

Away from Port-au-Prince, Haiti is mountainous, but beautiful; the roads are narrow, steep, rough, congested, and it is an exercise in driving skill and patience to get anywhere. Throw in a typical torrential downpour, and there are many roads you pick your times to travel on; otherwise you may end up in a twisted heap of metal.

The site survey was completed in three mornings of work; the afternoon downpours were when we processed everything from laptops or took a shower in the tropical rainstorms. While finishing the computer work on the site survey, it was a pleasure to watch my  engineer/architect teammates do their magic, creating preliminary designs for several buildings: the main orphanage building (baby and toddler sections with an ICU), nannies’ dorm, school, volunteers’ residence, director’s residence, maintenance and mechanical building, and last but not least a chapel. We also performed soil and ground water testing and created designs for water, storm, and septic.

The plans were finalized after the trip and many details worked out later, but the footprint was designed on site. I could go on about technical details that would interest many or a few, but the real story here is that someone has a vision to help children in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and that we as a team of design professionals were a small part of that.
When the work was done, spending time in the orphanage, helping the nannies, playing with the babies and toddlers, showed us why we were there. In the two weeks between our arrival and departure, three children died and five more were taken in for care. That is life in Haiti and in an orphanage.

I wish I had the room here to tell you the stories of some of the kids, like little Farrah, James, Jenny, Miranda, and so many others—what it was like to play with them, to watch them, to rock them to sleep—your emotions get quite a workout.  The fact that many of them have made it this far in their short, difficult lives with their frail bodies is truly amazing. I can’t even begin to fathom what life is like for the 20- to 30,000 kids who roam the streets of Port-au-Prince daily.

We have it so good here in Canada and the U.S.: our families, our homes, our jobs, our clean air, and water and open spaces, our freedom. I hope this makes you think.

Yes, it was just a site survey, not really all that much different than the hundreds I’ve done before. But this one had a purpose. Feel free to check out this 15-minute video where the pictures of this project speak far better than I could ever hope to write.

If something like this interests you or someone you know, by all means drop me an email. I will introduce you to some great people, and you will not be disappointed.

With thanks to my teammates Kevin, Tom, Wes, Rose, Mike, Shane, Joy, Clay, and Lori.
David N. Marquardt is an Alberta Land Surveyor at Stewart Weir Company Ltd., in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He can be reached at

Click here to read a PSM feature article about an EMi project in Kazakhstan from September 2009.   

And stay tuned for an update about EMI surveying in Haiti from a trip scheduled for July 2010.  

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