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ODU Engineering Alum Worries About Friends he Made Overseeing an Elaborate Water Project in a Remote Part of Haiti

When he visited Haiti just before Christmas, local engineer Dave Plum said one of the highlights of his life was seeing that the completed system of pipes and valves he designed was bringing water from an artesian spring, around a mountain, more than two miles to the remote village of Batis, near the Dominican Republic border.

"It was humbling," said Plum, a 1979 graduate of Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. "I've had the opportunity to work on a lot of different projects in the 30 years since I've been out of school. Nothing really compares to this: the impact this is going to have to people in the village, not having to walk two miles a few times a day, up a mountain, to get water."

Following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, Plum, vice president and senior program manager with URS in Virginia Beach, was anxiously awaiting word about the well-being of his contacts on the Caribbean island.

"From the news video, it is heartbreaking to see some of the familiar sites in ruins," Plum said. "In December, I was two blocks from the Presidential Palace, visiting the University Hospital. I was getting ready to assist Operation Blessing International with getting the wastewater treatment plant back in operation. Now I don't even know if the hospital exists any more. That is heartbreaking."

Plum had gotten involved in the water project in Batis through a fellow parishioner at Church of the Holy Family in Virginia Beach. "Really it started back in late 2005. A friend of mine who got me involved said, 'Could you come to a meeting and answer a couple of questions?' Little did I know what awaited me," Plum said.

On multiple trips to the Caribbean island, Plum got to know many people in Batis, and was struck by their determination to make their lives better.

"We taught them in one day and turned them loose," Plum said. When he returned a few months later, he was amazed. "They had over 10,000 feet of pipe underground, dug by hand, with picks and shovels, through some of the most rugged terrain that I've ever walked on. It's hard to explain it, pictures don't do it justice. It's kind of like building it from the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains down into the valley without following a trail."

The goal was to build a system of pipes that would make water run by gravity down to the village. "The problem is there was a mountain in the middle of it. The top of the mountain was about 200 feet above the water source elevation. So we had to essentially find a route around the mountain so we could have gravity flow the water the entire way," he said.

The troubleshooting on the complex project was finally completed last fall, and villagers were able to access clean, potable water from community taps in the village. Plum is not sure if there was any damage caused by the earthquake.

"I have been able to contact two friends in Hinche and Port au Prince to see if they can use their in-country contacts to get word to me," he said.

"Since our water project has several sections of elevated water line, we are anxious to learn what, if any, damage occurred to the concrete support towers. The design of the towers was very conservative and we anticipate that they are still intact."

The project itself required an incredible effort, from both the villagers in Batis and Plum's parish. He estimates that if his firm had billed out the project professionally, it would have cost in excess of half a million dollars.

As it turned out, the project was completed for a little less than $140,000, which went for supplies and workers' stipends. All of the money was raised through Church of the Holy Family.

When Plum needed volunteer assistance, he turned to his staff at URS, many of whom are also graduates of ODU.

"Marvin Pierre ('03) did a lot of the plan profile and detail design. He's of Haitian descent," Plum said. "He was born in the United States, but his parents lived in Haiti. His father helped interpret some of the drawings from English into Creole."

Seshadri Iyer ('96) did the modeling of the water flow system. Steven Poe ('07) accompanied Plum to Haiti on one trip and helped out in a number of capacities.

Plum said he and his colleagues and parishioners are hoping for the best for the village of Batis. He said he realizes the healing will take a long time in Haiti, long after the buildings are rebuilt. "But we're going to continue to be there, helping any way we can."

This article was posted on: January 18, 2010

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