2019 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Ryan Shelby, Ph.D.

Provided vital training and resources to help people in Haiti rebuild thousands of homes and roofs ripped apart by a Category 4 hurricane, making the structures safer and stronger to withstand future disasters

In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti as a Category 4 hurricane, affecting more than 2 million residents, killing 546 people and causing an estimated $2 billion in damage.

Through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Build Back Safer II initiative, Ryan Shelby, a foreign service engineering officer worked with his team to support reconstruction efforts, leading to the rebuilding of nearly 5,000 homes and roofs in southern Haiti since July 2018.

Instead of simply replacing concrete blocks and metal roofs, Shelby has worked with communities to build disaster-resistant structures with materials from local sources and trained more than 2,000 community members on incorporating new building materials.

“At the core, Ryan understands what sustainability really is and what it means, and he has the very rare quality of being both a brilliant engineer and a great communicator,” said Timonie Hood, a green-building coordinator from the Environmental Protection Agency. “Ryan is training local people to do hurricane resistant repairs so that next time it happens, they will be ready to go.”

Shelby, 35, said many people appreciated USAID’s approach under the Build Back Safer II initiative because it placed an emphasis on directly involving the local communities.

“Our program was one of the first to not only listen but involve them in the actual design and reconstruction of their homes,” Shelby said.

But navigating the complex Haitian political system to initiate the building and training process was no easy task for Shelby and his colleagues.

While USAID had a national agreement to work in Haiti, Shelby had to get buy-in from local leaders. Alongside the Organization of American States and the Pan American Development Foundation, Shelby’s team hosted engagement sessions with mayors, business owners and community members to establish trust and involve them in the rebuilding efforts.

“This may be a small step when you look at it from afar, but it’s a huge undertaking for local people,” said Cristobal Dupuoy, special representative for the Organization of American States in Haiti. “Their notion of their own lives changes as well. They ask more for their future.”

Building rapport within communities enabled Shelby to manage material shortages and theft. The team had to move building materials from Port au Prince down to the southern part of Haiti, a five-hour drive. Once they arrived, there were no secure buildings for storing the supplies.

Because of their prior engagement efforts, local mayors allowed Shelby’s team to use their offices for storage and safekeeping and took the lead on monitoring and distribution.

“As an engineer, Ryan is very hands-on and very much engaged in project management activities,” said Eric Florimon-Reed, deputy director in the USAID Office of Infrastructure, Energy and Engineering.

“You can’t make concrete pour faster, but you can make sure that everyone has the resources they need and isn’t held up by bureaucracy,” Florimon-Reed said.

The process Shelby implemented helped the project continue through unexpected circumstances, including political unrest in Haiti during the past year. By investing in local contractors, Shelby ensured the roofs were built.

“Even though I physically couldn’t be there, the mayors and masons were still there, and they wanted this work to continue,” Shelby said. “While the political instability has been a hindrance, the U.S. government and USAID are still working in Haiti, and the Build Back Safer II initiative is still continuing with this work.”

In addition to storm-proofing houses, Shelby is working on expanding electricity access in southern Haiti, as well as working with schools and cholera clinics to address sanitary conditions. So far, the Build Back Safer II team has rehabilitated public toilets, latrines and handwashing stations at 12 schools and four cholera clinics.

“It’s not so much what the projects entail,” Dupuoy said. “What Ryan does is bring back dignity to the people who benefit from those projects. And that is something that is not quantifiable.”

This medalist was the recipient of the National Security and International Affairs Medal, which was combined with the Safety and Law Enforcement Medal in 2020.