WASHINGTON - In the heart of Washington, a room full of satellite imaging and aerial photographs is where the monumental task of rebuilding Haiti begins.
The Haiti Situation Room at the World Bank contains materials assembled by thousands of volunteers from 103 organizations including universities, government and private aid agencies, and companies helping the earthquake-devastated nation.
The software specialists, scientists and technicians from around the world have joined disaster experts and urban planners at the World Bank, the poverty-fighting institution that will be play a major role in helping Haiti recover.
For the first time the world is responding to a crisis in a 21st Century way, says Joaquin Toro, a senior disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank.
The technology allows us to have a big picture of what happened without having to spend a month or two months on the ground, Toro said.
Flying over Haiti several times a day, aircraft equipped with optical laser sensors and high-definition imagery have gathered aerial photographs of the devastation in which as many as 200,000 people have died.
Downloaded to a server of the University of Puerto Rico, then transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology, the images are processed and sent to the team at the World Bank.
In the Situation Room, Galen Burr Evans, a World Bank urban development specialist, examines an aerial photograph of the broken capital Port-au-Prince. He touches a screen mounted on a wall and it quickly zooms in on a damaged building he identifies as a hotel. The images are so sharp that it is easy to see people in the street carrying water buckets.
With that type of detail we can do analysis of the level of damage, whether buildings are completely destroyed, or just heavily damaged, Evans said.
ZONING IN ON DISASTER
By working with groups like Google, Yahoo, NASA and Microsoft, ImageCAT and the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Evans said the World Bank had halved the preparation time for disaster damage assessments.
He said improved technologies for satellite imagery allowed experts to figure out objects as small as 15 centimeters (6 inches) in size on the ground in Haiti.
Francis Ghesquiere, a disaster risk expert who will lead the World Bank's damage assessment in Haiti, said recovering from such a major disaster would take a massive international effort led by the Haitian government.
The first challenge, he said is to ensure the government, which is operating out of a police station in the capital, was able to function properly to lead the recovery.
Ghesquiere said 30 to 40 percent of all senior civil servants in Haiti died in the earthquake, which struck between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Jan. 12 when junior civil servants had left for the day but most senior officials were still at work.
Equipped with maps and photos from the Situation Room, Ghesquiere will travel to Haiti this week to prepare for the formal multi-national damage assessment starting on Monday.
In Port-au-Prince teams of international engineers will examine buildings to see which are safe and which are not. Separately, other experts will do an inventory of damage to different sectors of the economy including health, education and transport.
It is early days in the reconstruction of Haiti, but Ghesquiere said this is an opportunity to rebuild a country better than before.
As experts survey the damage, many of them are already talking about rebuilding an entirely new country and resettling people in safer and better constructed cities.
We can't look at this reconstruction as purely rebuilding Port-au-Prince, it has to be a vision for the entire country, Ghesquiere added.
(Editing by Paul Simao)