Earthquake-ravaged country’s rebuilding stuck in gridlock

January 9, 2011 

First in a three-day series

By Jim Wyss and Jacqueline Charles

McClatchy Newspapers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Jenny-Carls Joseph dreams of going home. But home is a nightmare of broken concrete and twisted steel that, a year after Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, has yet to give up his father’s body.

So Joseph and 24,038 others bide their time in a 13.6-acre industrial park, which they’ve turned into a sprawling settlement of tattered tarps and dusty tents.

The owner of the industrial park, Johnny Brandt, wants his land back. Before the earthquake, Brandt had dreams of his own, including building a factory on the site that might create desperately needed jobs.

But 12 months after the world rushed to Haiti’s aid, this tent city -- like much of the nation -- seems mired in reconstruction gridlock.

“We have to get out of this situation, but we have nowhere to go,” said Joseph, a 43-year-old pastor who has become the de-facto mayor of the community. “My church is gone, my home is gone. I can’t even get help to dig out my father’s body.”

Despite more than $10 billion in pledged aid and the good intentions of more than 10,000 aid organizations, Port-au-Prince remains a sobering sight.

“The mountains of rubble still exist; the plight of the victims without any sign of acceptable temporary shelter is worsening; the conditions for the spread of cholera and the threat of new epidemics become more frightening with each passing day,” said former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, the Caribbean Community’s special representative to Haiti.

“In short, there has been no abatement of the trauma and misery which the Haitian populace have suffered.” The reasons for the prolonged trauma are many. Plans to build new shelters have been tripped up by unforgiving geography, legal chaos, political paralysis, government indecision and an international community sometimes accused of generating long-term problems even as it tries to stamp out short-term ones.

Signs of progress

Not all is bleak. Major streets in the capital have been cleared of debris, tent cities are emptying, and some businesses are seeing a boom on the back of aid dollars and workers.

But the signs of improvement are easily lost against a backdrop of devastation. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed a government-estimated 300,000 people and displaced more than 1.5 million. According to the International Organization on Migration, 11 months after the earthquake, there were still 1,199 tent cities -- many clogging parks and private properties -- that are home to more than 1.05 million people.

And then there’s the rubble. After the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, it took 2½ years to remove 35 million cubic feet of debris, said Thomas Adams, the Haiti Special Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State. Haiti is suffocating under 20 times that much rubble.

“People cannot conceive of how many truckloads that is,” Adams said. “The rubble will be around for a couple of years in the best of circumstances.”

Armies of shovel-wielding workers have helped clear about 5 percent of the debris under cash-for-work programs. But much of the heavy lifting remains to be done.

In December, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) approved $25 million for demolition and rubble removal in targeted Port-au-Prince neighborhoods. That comes on top of the approximately $100 million already doled out by the U.S. government and a little less than $20 million by the Haitian government.

Progress has been stymied in part because there is only one dump site when at least four more are needed, Adams said. And the IHRC has been struggling to get donors to focus on the problem.

“Rubble removal is not sexy,” Adams said. “There is no monument on a spot saying ‘The U.S. government moved 1 million cubic meters of rubble.’ And other countries would like to put their money into health or education.”

Meanwhile, companies have been clamoring for contracts for months.

Pompano Beach.-based AshBritt claims it invested $25 million in moving equipment and personnel to Haiti to ramp-up for bids. But the process has been complex and slow, said company CEO Randal Perkins.

“It has been clear for months and months that nothing is going to take place and there will be no recovery until the demolition takes place,” he said. “It affects shelters. It affects everything. We have to get the place cleaned up, and right now money is the issue.”

AshBritt is one of the few to win a contract. The Haitian government raised eyebrows last year when it awarded a no-bid $10 million deal to the Haiti Recovery Group -- a joint-venture between AshBritt and Haiti’s GB Group.

Jean-Max Bellerive, the IHRC co-chair and Haiti prime minister, said he used the emergency powers of his office to circumvent international bidding.

“The people were there and they were ready to start. We had to do something,” Bellerive said. “It was the best offer I had at that time.”

Critics say the government overpaid for the work, and Bellerive is complaining that the “rubble was badly removed” in some instances. That deal is now at the center of a lawsuit in Texas where the former U.S. special coordinator for relief and reconstruction said he is owed money by the Haiti Recovery Group for helping them as a consultant win the contract.

Even so, Perkins said the reliance on cash-for-work programs -- which employ crews with shovels and wheelbarrows to remove debris -- has meant most of AshBritt’s heavy machinery has been sitting on the sidelines.

“Cash for work is a great thing, but it can’t be the only thing,” he said. “You can’t move mountains with it. We are not building pyramids here.”

If debris is the most visible obstacle to rebuilding Haiti, others are equally daunting.

Other obstacles

“In the short term, it is hard to be optimistic about progress,” Oxfam, the British aid organization, said in a recent report about the recovery. “Political instability, civil unrest and prolonged government paralysis following the November 2010 elections, as well as the national cholera outbreak which has already killed more than 2,600 people, have cast shadows over the immediate future.”

Land disputes, arguments over strategy, disappointment in the IHRC and lack of hard cash -- as opposed to just pledges -- have also hampered the process.

Eduardo Marques Almeida, the residential representative of the Inter-American Development Bank, said his organization has had to scuttle various housing projects because there is a lack of suitable land -- and multiple ownership claims on some parcels.

“Whenever we decide to go to a specific land, someone calls me saying, ‘This is my land, not the government’s land,’” he said. “We have to solve this issue.”

Plans to build massive communities to lure people out of the tent cities have been hampered by government inaction and lack of money. Last week, in hopes of convincing private investors to bank on Haiti, the government put down $50 million toward a $260 million project to build two large apartment complexes.

Meanwhile, two emergency relocation camps, Corail and Tabarre Issa, that were supposed to anchor new communities are struggling. Both are treeless, remote sites, far removed from the commerce and bustle of Port-au-Prince.

“Having the people in Corail where most of the houses have been built is not going to work. There is nothing there,” Almeida said. “If they don’t have jobs and access to education, it’s not sustainable.”

On a recent weekend, Melian Remis, 38, sat outside her brand-new home in Tabarre Issa, where she lives with seven relatives.

She recognizes she’s one of the few lucky ones to make the transition from tent to a temporary shelter. But the planned community is more than an hour by bus from the jobs in Port-au-Prince, and the one-room home is more humble than she thought it would be.

“It’s so small we cannot do anything inside,” Remis said, as she sat in her gravel yard cooking. “At night, we sleep like fish, packed in together.”

Fixing not demolishing

Given the complications of starting from scratch, some wonder if the new Port-au-Prince shouldn’t look more like the old Port-au-Prince.

Carrefour, south of the capital and near the quake’s epicenter, is one of the cities most affected by the earthquake. There, vendors and cars compete for space on narrow traffic-jammed roads against a backdrop of toppled structures and pancaked buildings. Homeless quake victims live on a road median in tin shacks.

In a few buildings, however, work crews can be seen embedding rebar and patching walls.

The work is part of a $30 million pilot project to identify homes that can be repaired and made earthquake resistant.

Engineers have already assessed 382,000 buildings in Port-au-Prince and found 54 percent were safe to move into, and 26 percent can be repaired, said Jeff Kerzner, the Haiti country director of the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, one of the organizations working on the project.

At a price tag of about $1,300 per home, the costs are comparable to building a temporary shelter, Kerzner said. And the project skirts the issues of land titles and community displacement, he said.

“People are buying into this strategy and realize it’s the way to go,” he said. By comparison, building temporary shelters for people who could move back into their own homes is “a waste of time and money,” he said.

But some wonder if rebuilding without rethinking makes sense.

One reason the earthquake was so lethal in Port-au-Prince was because of densely packed, poorly planned neighborhoods. While the PADF claims the project will ultimately tackle these issues by creating parks and open spaces, some fear that rebuilding -- without wholesale demolition -- has a downside.

“This place is a place that was built in a totally ad-hoc fashion,” said Nigel Fisher, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Haiti. “Do you rebuild that? It’s an urban renewal question but it’s also a social question.”

What is clear is that homes alone are not enough.

The camps are a powerful attraction, offering potable water, sanitation and even free health care -- basic services that more than 30 percent of the population lacked before the earthquake, Bellerive said.

Long-term solutions wanted

“Even if (people) have a little home, they refuse to return to their homes,” he said. “They are saying, ‘I am going to stay there until you find a long-term solution. ... I am going to stay there until I see clearly my future.’”

The government and the U.N. humanitarian office are now asking aid agencies to provide those services outside of the encampments to encourage people to return home. But the government has often complained that aid organizations turn a deaf ear to government pleas and operate with little oversight. Bellerive and others pointed to an incident in early 2010 when aid groups complained that their temporary shelters were stuck in Haitian customs.

When President Rene Preval invited the groups to provide documentation so he could personally release the shelters, no one complied, Bellerive said.

That has cast doubts on some groups’ self-promotional claims about how many shelters they have built, Bellerive said. “We don’t see them,” he said. “Where are they?”

Brandt, the owner of the industrial park where Jenny-Carls Joseph lives, said he has lost faith in aid groups and the government.

At his site, NGOs provide clean water, free health care and some food rations.

“They have been there for a year and they are well taken care of,” he said of his uninvited tenants. “Even if they had a place to go, they might not.”

Brandt said he has met with aid groups and government representatives to try to find a solution for the parcel, which is also his guarantee on a line of credit for his existing company, European Motors.

Despite the talk of building new communities and billions in pledged aid, Brandt doesn’t see much progress.

“They have the land and the financial means to do it, but they are not doing it,” he said. “I just don’t understand why this is taking so long, and it leaves me in a bind.”

Some land owners have resorted to paying people to vacate their property. But Bellerive said moving the problem from one encampment to another is no solution.

Former President Bill Clinton, the IHRC co-chair along with Bellerive, said the perception of Haiti’s slow recovery is also being tinged by high expectations.

“In every natural disaster in which I have been involved for over 30 years now, the one thing that is always too slow is moving people from temporary to permanent housing,” he said. But “we are on track to move hundreds of thousands of people (this) year into permanent housing.”

Joseph said he prays aid groups and the government get the recovery right.

“I won’t leave this camp until everyone has a home to go to,” he said, as he watched children jump rope on a thin slice of dirt between tents. “That’s my dream. I’ll be here until the end.”

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