Just 2 percent of quake debris in Haiti cleared
By TAMARA LUSH (AP) Sept 11, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti ‹ From the dusty rock mounds lining the streets to a
National Palace that looks like it's vomiting concrete from its core, rubble
is one of the most visible reminders of Haiti's devastating earthquake.
Rubble is everywhere in this capital city: cracked slabs, busted-up cinder
blocks, half-destroyed buildings that still spill bricks and pulverized
concrete onto the sidewalks. Some places look as though they have been
flipped upside down, or are sinking to the ground, or listing precariously
to one side.
By some estimates, the quake left about 33 million cubic yards of debris in
Port-au-Prince ‹ more than seven times the amount of concrete used to build
the Hoover Dam. So far, only about 2 percent has been cleared, which means
the city looks pretty much as it did a month after the Jan. 12 quake.
Government officials and outside aid groups say rubble removal is the
priority before Haiti can rebuild. But the reasons why so little has been
cleared are complex. And frustrating.
Heavy equipment has to be shipped in by sea. Dump trucks have difficulty
navigating narrow and mountainous dirt roads. An abysmal records system
makes it hard for the government to determine who owns a dilapidated
property. And there are few sites on which to dump the rubble, which often
contains human remains.
Also, no single person in the Haitian government has been declared in charge
of the rubble, prompting foreign nongovernmental organizations to take on
the task themselves. The groups are often forced to fight for a small pool
of available money and contracts ‹ which in turn means the work is done
piecemeal, with little coordination.
Projects funded by USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense have spent more
than $98.5 million to remove 1.2 million cubic yards of rubble.
"There's not a master plan," Eric Overvest, country director for the U.N.
Development Program, said with a sigh. "After the earthquake, the first
priority was clearing the roads. That was the easiest part."
Overvest said the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission ‹ created after the
earthquake to coordinate billions of dollars in aid ‹ has approved a $17
million plan to clear rubble from six neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The
neighborhoods have not yet been selected, however, and it's unclear when
debris will be removed from other areas.
Leslie Voltaire, a Haitian architect, urban planner and presidential
candidate, says his country needs a "rubble czar."
"Everybody is passing the blame on why things haven't happened yet," he
said. "There should be one person in charge. Resettlement has not even begun
yet, and it can't until the city has been cleared."
Voltaire maintains that there are enough crushers, dump trucks and other
heavy equipment for the job; others say that more machinery is needed. But
everyone agrees that recovery will take decades ‹ and the slower the rubble
removal, the longer the recovery.
Most Haitians are simply living with the rubble, working and walking around
it. After a while, the gray heaps and cockeyed buildings just blend into the
tattered background of the city.
"It will take many, many years to fix," Overvest acknowledged. "We can't
just go with wheelbarrows to remove it."
But that's exactly what some Haitians are doing: using shovels and
wheelbarrows to clear properties ‹ a Sisyphean task if there ever was one.
"Personally, I don't think Port-au-Prince will ever be cleared," said
47-year-old Yvon Clerisier, an artist working a temporary job clearing
rubble with a rusty shovel for a private homeowner. He wore torn jeans, a
sweaty T-shirt and sandals, and was covered in a fine dust.
Clerisier was one of a dozen men working in temperatures higher than 100
degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). The property owner, Gregory Antoine, said
he paid the crew $1,200 for three weeks of work.
"People want to work," Antoine said. "If you get a good organization to put
people to work and give them direction, things will get done. But right now,
nothing is getting done."
It's not for lack of trying. The nonprofit organization CHF International
spent about $5 million of USAID money on heavy machinery and paying Haitians
to remove rubble from specific sites.
Dan Strode was the rubble-removal operations manager for CHF for three
months; some dubbed him "the rubble guy" because of his enthusiasm for the
"Rubble isn't sexy," the Californian said. "And clearing it is not as simple
as people think."
Strode's big worry: that debris won't be cleared fast enough and that the
piles of rocks and garbage and dirt will be overtaken by tropical growth.
"If we don't clear it, what we will leave behind is something that is worse
than before," he said. "If you come back in a year, and the rubble hasn't
been cleared, it will be grown over, subject to landslides and unstable."
Strode, who coordinated the removal of nearly 290,000 cubic yards of
material in three months, said a major obstacle to demolishing buildings has
been the lack of property records, which either were destroyed in the quake
or never existed at all.
Without an owner's consent, it is difficult to remove debris, he said.
Another problem: Strode often received approval to demolish a building such
as a hospital or a school ‹ even when nearby homes were at risk.
"You cannot wantonly go in and demolish," he said. "There's a liability
Strode is no longer doing rubble removal. The grant money ran out, and has
not yet been renewed.
Another hurdle: dumping the debris.
While many private landowners and others are dumping the rubble in the
streets, canals or countryside, there's only one place in all of Haiti where
NGOs using U.S. money can take contaminated rubble: an approved and
environmentally surveyed site.
"Not all rubble is the same," said Michael Zamba, the spokesman for the Pan
American Development Foundation. "There's a lot of contaminated rubble with
human remains in it. It can't go in a standard landfill."
Zamba points out that before the earthquake, Haiti was the least-developed
country in the Western Hemisphere ‹ so it's not that surprising recovery is
"Haiti is a really expensive place to work: You have to ship in gas,
vehicles, people," he said. "But you clean up the rubble in a neighborhood,
and it transforms it. Life comes back."