A year after earthquake, Haiti's recovery remains gridlocked

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 10, 2011 

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, still holds his father's body.

Johnny Brandt would like to have his industrial park back, where he'd planned to build a factory. But more than 24,000 people —including Joseph — still live there in a sprawling settlement of tattered tarps and dusty tents.

Twelve months after the world rushed to Haiti's aid, the country is mired in reconstruction gridlock. Despite more than $10 billion in pledged aid and the good intentions of more than 10,000 aid organizations, its capital, Port-au-Prince, remains a sobering sight: More than 1 million people still live in more than 1,000 tent cities.

And then there's the rubble. After the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, it took 2 1/2 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."

Only 5 percent of the rubble has been moved, with progress stymied in part because there's only one dump site to put it in. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the agency responsible for quake relief that former President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive co-chair, 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.

"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," said Randal Perkins, the CEO of AshBritt, a Florida company that won a controversial no-bid contract in partnership with a Haitian company to remove some of the debris. "It affects shelters. It affects everything. We have to get the place cleaned up, and right now money is the issue."

If debris is the most visible obstacle, others are equally daunting. Land disputes, arguments over strategy, disappointment in the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission and lack of hard cash — as opposed to just pledges — also have hampered the process.

"It is hard to be optimistic about progress," the British aid organization Oxfam said in a recent report about the recovery.

Government inaction and lack of money have hampered plans to build massive communities to lure people out of the tent cities. Eduardo Marques Almeida, the resident representative of the Inter-American Development Bank, said his organization had had to scuttle various housing projects because there was 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."

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. Jobs are a problem, and the one-room homes are more humble than people expected.

"It's so small we cannot do anything inside," Melian Remis, 38, said outside her brand-new home in Tabarre Issa, where she lives with seven relatives. "At night, we sleep like fish, packed in together."

"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."

An undercurrent of competition and complaints that pit Haitian government officials against aid groups and international agencies is coloring the whole effort.

Jeff Kerzner, the Haiti country director of the Pan American Development Foundation, argues that aid money is being wasted on putting up temporary shelters. For the same amount of money, he says, work crews could repair homes so that residents could move back into them.

Kerzner said engineers already had assessed 382,000 buildings in Port-au-Prince and found that 54 percent were safe to move into and another 26 percent could be repaired.

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.

But his view isn't universally accepted. Some wonder whether rebuilding without rethinking makes any sense. They note that the earthquake was so lethal partly because of the capital's densely packed, poorly planned neighborhoods.

"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's clear is that homes alone aren't enough.

The tent cities offer potable water, sanitation and even free health care, basic services that more than 30 percent of the population lacked before the earthquake, Prime Minister Bellerive said.

"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.' "

Brandt, the owner of the industrial park where 24,000 people are living, said he'd lost faith in the aid groups and the government. He's met with both to find a way to regain control of the parcel, which is his guarantee on a line of credit for his company, European Motors, but they offer little hope.

"They have been there for a year and they are well taken care of," he said of his uninvited tenants, who get clean water, free health care and some food rations from aid groups. "Even if they had a place to go, they might not."

Joseph, whose father lies beneath the year-old rubble, agrees he's unlikely to leave.

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

(Wyss and Charles report for The Miami Herald.)

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