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Greetings from the Trenches: Rose-Hulman Engineers without Borders blog from Dominican Republic

August 26, 2011

- Read the First Entry
- Read the Second Entry

Water Everywhere ...
Daily rains filled the trenches, making it difficult to lay the pipe. Water was bailed by hand until a pump was rented. Assisting with the water removal efforts were Abby Grommet (left) and Angelica Patino.

Four members of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Engineers without Borders (EWB) group are currently continuing the organization's work with the Batey Relief Alliance in the Dominican Republic.  They are renovating an old building on a sugar cane plantation into a functional in-patient facility for the health clinic Centro Medico, which serves approximately 10,000 people.  This summer, the EWB team is focusing on expanding the building's septic system, constructing a septic tank as well as installing a pipe network.  Work will continue through August 29.

The Rose-Hulman group includes EWB President Angelica Patino and Abby Grommet, two holdovers from last year's trip, and newcomers Ryan Oliver and Elaine Schaudt.  There are two mentors,  Wil Painter of Indianapolis and John Gardner, associate professor of Spanish (serving as cultural mentor/translator).

EWB projects are multi-faceted and students bear significant responsibility to successfully complete the projects.

Rose-Hulman students provided the following observations from this summer's trip.

    EWB-Group Photo
  Leaving El Toro before getting covered in mud and sweat.  The front row are (from left) Angelia Patino, Elaine Schaudt and Abby Grommet.  In the back row is Ryan Oliver.

Septic System Design

Working with Dr. John Aidoo of the Department of Civil Engineering, as well as Mike Cline and Wil Painter from EWB-Indianapolis, we designed a septic system for Centro Medico.  The system consists of two main parts: the piping network and the septic tank.   The piping network essentially connects the septic tank to the in-patient facility building.

During the week break between winter and spring quarter last year, a team of students surveyed the property in order to calculate the appropriate slopes for the piping network, which is critical for the fluid in the pipe to be released into the septic tank. The placement of the septic tank also depended on data from the topographical survey.

The septic tank requires a minimum capacity of about 1,200 gallons.  The final dimensions of the tank are 11 feet long by 8 feet high by 8 feet wide.  This is based on the water usage and waste disposal of the in-patient facility, along with future plans of adding more bathrooms, a cafeteria, and, in the very distant future, a surgery center.  The top and bottom slabs are made of pre-cast concrete, while the walls and interior baffle are made of concrete blocks, mortar, cement filling, and #4 rebar.

Arriving on Site

Every single day, the Dominicans on our team get a two-hour head start by arriving on-site at 6 a.m.  Stepping out of Rudy's truck, sounds of snappy Spanish shouts, laughs, shovels hitting soil and swishes of running water mix with crying babies and murmurs from patients waiting in line.  After setting our bags aside on the back porch, the head honcho of the whole show swings by and loudly announces, "Angel Rojas está aquí."  When handed a cup of coffee from a lady in the clinic kitchen, he returns an affectionate "Gracias, mi corazón."

Once the morning gets going, Angel has already smoked half a pack of Marlboros and, while lighting yet another, orders Choco (short for Chocolate) direct trucks full of building supplies or to fetch tools from the tool room.  Chicle (chewing gum), El Tigre (tiger), Henry, Frances and Daniel huddle around the manager Mejía and receive instructions on where and how deep to dig next.   Once Mejía finishes, the guys resume their singing and pseudo mud fights between piling up mountains of dirt.


Before any pipes were laid or slabs cast in place, both the pipeline trenches and septic tank pit were dug out -- so simple to say, not so simple to do.  A critical part of the design was getting the elevations as exact as possible.  Otherwise, gravity would work against us instead of for us, fluid would fail to drain into the tank, and the toilets and water fixtures in the building would be dysfunctional.   (Note: Unlike in the U.S., most piping networks here rely on gravity flow alone rather than a pump.)

EWB-Filling Holes
Rose-Hulman's EWB team members help local residents in backfilling a trench in this summer's project.

While digging, unexpected challenges popped up -- buried concrete slabs to crack through, ceramic tubing from previous buildings to remove and inconveniently placed pipes from the current system to dodge when we place our pipes.  These challenges turned out to be manageable and didn't alter the design of the pipe network.  At this point, every single pipe is laid, and early tests show that drainage occurs properly.

With the inhuman strength of the Dominican work team, the septic tank pit has finally been completed after digging nonstop for eight days.  However, we've stalled on laying the bottom slab due to the same weather delays. The actual digging of the septic tank pit has been quite the undertaking.  The first layer of topsoil was soft to break through, but the clay layers seemed to increase in density the deeper we dug.  Daily afternoon rains also slowed us down and forced us to shift around mud instead of dry ground.  Groundwater seeped through the pit walls and combined with the rain.  This meant that each day, we had to both bail and pump the water out of our "swimming pool" before digging could resume.  Such a process took at least four to five hours.

What's for lunch?

After sweating in the hot Dominican morning sun from hours of hard labor, we are eager for our much wanted lunch break.  About midday, a lady from down the road arrives at the work site with a home-cooked lunch tightly packed in Styrofoam containers for RD$125 (a little over U.S. $3).  We kick off our wet, muddy boots and rest our blistered and calloused hands while enjoying the authentic tastes of Caribbean cuisine.

As we carefully unwrap the bundle, making sure not to spill a morsel of the much coveted midday sustenance, the aroma of freshly cooked meat in a flavored sauce of herbs and exotic spices fills the air.  A typical lunch also contains a colorful array of vegetables picked from one of the many lush fields that encompass the tropical island, as well as large mound of white rice smothered with a soup of spicy bean blend.  This national dish is commonly referred to as the Dominican flag as the rice and beans depict the white and red colors of the flag, and the blue is . . . well . . . a figment of your imagination.

We carry over our plates to sit under the canopy of palm trees what surround the medical clinic.  These trees provide our afternoon shade.  The spectrum of colorful hues of flowering shrubs paints the epitome of this tropical paradise, creating the perfect ambiance for our afternoon rest.  After scarfing down the 'comida' in a matter of minutes, our bellies are once again happy, and we shortly return to work only after allowing a crowd of hovering stray dogs to lick the remaining crumbs off our plates.

¿Por qué, Irene, por qué?

Checking the weather before we arrived, the forecast predicted rain every day.  Although disheartened, this was the only time of year we could all come down for the standard two-week implementation schedule.  The first day, it was sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoons; it rained extremely consistently from day to day, usually from 3pm to 5 pm, with sprinkling throughout the day.  Saturday, five days after starting to work, we came to the clinic, and the Dominican civil engineer, Angel Rojas, warned us of a tropical depression "muy enorme" coming our way.  On Monday, what he predicted, except at a harsher level - a level one hurricane, was becoming reality.

  Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology student Elaine Schaudt prepares the surveying equipment in order to figure out whether the elevations of the junction box placements agree with the calculated pipe slope.

When the grocery store opened, we rushed to stock up on jugs of water and crackers in case stores were closed for a few days and supply lines were disrupted.  Strangely, no Dominicans seemed to "franicking" (frantically panicking).  Apparently there was a previous scare two weeks ago -- Hurricane Emily -- and when it approached the island, everyone was released from work early to take shelter from the storm.  Similarly, there were only strong winds and a torrential downpour, but nothing amounting to hurricane level.

Even so, there were many less people on the street, and the town had a darker, almost ghost-town-like feel.  Usually, on the way to the friendly neighborhood fruit vendor, we pass by a corner where older men, perhaps policemen, sit around on their motorcycles, chatting it up.  Just another street down, younger boys, mounted on bicycles, imitate the men.  Many people are dressed up nicely, heading to work either on foot, by motorbike, or by Guagua (cheap public bus/van transport).  Students trudge by with their parents, while other kids make scrubbing motions with their hands, trying to find people willing to have their shoes shined.  People relax in the main square, a park with a central pavilion, eating breakfast from the many different vendors surrounding.  All of this was missing on the day of the hurricane.  The church, usually with daily mas and bells ringing, remained undisturbed.  A few people were busily walking about, trying to beat out the storm while racing towards their home, and very few stores were open.  The grocery was one of them, along with our daily fruit vendor cart.  As the bright lightning stripes came closer, and the loud boom of thunder reverberated more deeply within our ears, we quickened our pace.  Some of those around us seemed unworried, as they are used to these kinds of storms.  No one was lining up at the store like what happens in Miami during similar circumstances.  We seemed the most worried.

Sporting an EWB t-shirt, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology student Abby Grommet discusses with EWB chapter members Elaine Schaudt and Ryan Oliver about the required length of pipe for a trench.

That day we left the clinic early and spent the afternoon in our hotel, waiting for any huge gust of wind to fulfill our excitement and fears.  We watched the news, although in Spanish, without regress, tracking the path of the hurricane as it became larger and larger.  Alas, after waiting for hours, our spirits were dashed and we all fell asleep early, like old women with nothing to do but knit and complete crossword puzzles, except without the materials to do even this.  The rain had just come in spurts, and while it did soak some people riding home late, it was similar to the other rains we had seen earlier in the week.

Now our project is postponed due to thunderstorms, rain and standing water.  In Puerto Rico, the communication network is down and hundreds of thousands of people are without electricity.  In northern Dominican Republic, where the hurricane had more directly passed over than where we were, many bridges were destroyed, trees were downed, and flooding was occurring.  We were lucky, in the sense of feeling only the outside edge of the storm with only low wind speeds and some heavy rains.  While some of us had been interested in experiencing a hurricane for the first time, at least our work site would suffer minimal damage, causing us only a few setbacks.  We still arrive at the worksite every day, hoping the rain will die down long enough for things to dry and for us to start laying more concrete.  As we write this, we are under a small pavilion, overlooking our project, hoping for the weather to comply and for our excavations to remain relatively unharmed.  As the hurricane moves so slowly over the ocean, at around 10 km/hour, the water that picks up is just dumped on us as the storm system grows.  The upper layer of dirt is completely saturated, with the impermeable clay beneath stopping more water from seeping in.  The water just flows out into the surrounding farms, drowning crops (even rice), and hurting animals.  We can only hope that this ends soon so that we can continue with our goal of completing the septic tank before our final departure Monday afternoon.