@BR Ednote:Editor’s note: This is the third in a series examining the challenges and opportunities in Haiti’s reconstruction, six months after the devastating earthquake.
By JACQUELINE CHARLES, LESLEY CLARK and TRENTON DANIEL
PORT-AU-PRINCE — With dozens of black-and-white government dump trucks, excavators and other heavy equipment parked on the lawn of a crumbled presidential palace, Haitian President René Préval on Monday declared that the country’s reconstruction has begun.
“While we’re continuing to help people in the camps, we officially want to launch the reconstruction phase to allow these people to get out from underneath the tents,” Préval said, gesturing to the 100 vehicles being dispatched to neighborhoods to help in demolition and rubble removal. “It will not be easy and it requires a lot of resources. Before we reconstruct, we must clean up.”
Préval marked the six-month anniversary of the catastrophic quake with a morning ceremony recognizing some two dozen Haitian and foreigners including Miami fire rescue volunteer Karls Noel Paul who helped in the early days.
Over at the U.N. Stabilization Mission, staffers marked the day with tears and the unveiling of a mural by eight Haitian artists that commemorated the 102 staff members killed.
In South Florida, there was good news. Federal officials announced at the Miami field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they plan to extend the deadline for undocumented Haitian nationals living in the United States to apply for Temporary Protected Status. They also said they are reviewing the possibility of extending the benefit, which defers deportation, to those who arrived shortly after Jan. 12.
But immigration advocates remained concerned over how to legally get more Haitians still contending with the rubble-rife aftermath out of the country.
“It’s something that would be a tremendous shot in the arm to the recovery of Haiti,” immigration advocate Steve Forester said.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an interview that his office also is examining — along with the State Department — whether to expedite visas for Haitians whose petitions for relatives in Haiti have been approved.
In Washington, President Barack Obama, meeting with visiting Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez thanked that nation for coming to Haiti’s rescue while Cheryl Mills, chief or staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, provided a progress report on what has been done. It includes providing food to the estimated 1.5 million left homeless by the quake and improvements in healthcare.
“There is still an enormous amount that needs to be done,” Mills conceded.
Housing and removing of rubble remain Haiti’s two biggest challenges, Préval said during the ceremony that was attended by former President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission.
With enough rubble — 20 million cubic meters — to fill five superdomes, Haiti has struggled to move to reconstruction because there is just so much debris. Préval said his government was considering a 90-day plan that would expedite the removal, yet still only take care of 10 percent of the debris.
But he also pointed out some quiet progress. In the hilltop neighborhood of Fort National, the government has been seeking to move people back into their homes, sending in heavy equipment to demolish and employing residents in cash-for-work programs. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes later toured the site.
Critics have slammed Préval and his government for not moving fast enough in bettering the situation in a country that even in pre-quake days struggled to provide basic services to its 9.6 million citizens.
The international community, too, has come under fire for not providing the aid it promised when dozens of countries in March at a donors conference in New York pledged $5.3 billion in reconstruction assistance. Clinton said he intends to spend the next seven weeks making sure they provide a schedule of reimbursement.
“When we come out of this, we want Haiti to have a strong middle class and we want poor people to own their property and believe they can work themselves into the middle class,” Clinton said.
Monday’s ceremony aimed to symbolize both the tentative end of one chapter and the beginning of another while recognizing scores of Haitians and foreigners who aided Haiti in the days immediately after the disaster.