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Recovery in Haiti slowed by politics, geography, debris

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 have 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 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.

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 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."

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."

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

"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.

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.

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