For Haiti, No Relief in Sight

By Interl, Jeneen | Newsweek, November 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

For Haiti, No Relief in Sight


Interl, Jeneen, Newsweek


After disaster, the world rushed in to help. So why is it taking so long to rebuild?

If there is a single essential prerequisite to the reconstruction of Haiti, it's the removal of rubble from the capital city. The Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people and rendered more than 1 million homeless, also left behind about 25 million cubic yards--six times the volume of Hoover Dam--in felled houses, schools, and government buildings. People can survive in tents--for a while, anyway--and schools and hospitals can hobble along in whatever temporary facilities are available. But you cannot truly rebuild a city, or anything else as thoroughly decimated as Port-au-Prince, until you clear away the detritus of that which has been destroyed.

So it ought to come as a surprise to casual observers that 10 months after the quake, only 5 percent of that rubble, or slightly more than a million cubic yards, has been hauled from the streets. One million cubic yards is impressive when you consider that the bulk of it was gathered and carted off by Haitians working with nothing more than pick-axes, wheelbarrows, and their own bare hands. But it's still less than 10 percent of what officials had hoped to remove by now. Some 250,000 houses and nearly 4,000 schools have yet to be touched. Tired of waiting, and weary of life in the tent cities, thousands of Haitians have made their homes amid these ruins, stretching tattered straggles of cloth and tarp across protrusions of rebar and doing their best to sweep the concrete from whatever patches of smooth floor they can find.

Rubble removal is not the only thing going slowly. In fact, six months after the international community rallied to Haiti's side, promising $8.75 billion for reconstruction and the coming of a veritable Haitian renaissance, progress has fizzled on practically all fronts. Yes, shelters have been set up--tents and tarpaulins, mostly--but they offer scant protection against hurricanes like Tomas, which bombarded towns around Port-au-Prince late last week. There are makeshift schools, too, but hardly any teachers who speak French or Creole. And while, by some accounts, access to clean water has improved from pre-quake levels, most of that water is still being trucked in by aid groups, an unsustainable solution to a problem that isn't going to disappear. Meanwhile, cholera is making its way through the countryside. "In a nutshell, the recovery process is not going well," says Elizabeth Ferris, who tracks Haiti at the Brookings Institution. "Reconstruction has barely started."

To be sure, the barriers to moving forward are complex. For one thing, despite the pledges, donor dollars have been slow to actually materialize (most of the $1.15 billion promised by the U.S. was only recently cleared by Congress, and many donor countries have yet to give anything at all). For another, the quake claimed nearly 20 percent of all federal employees, along with 27 out of 28 federal buildings, leaving survivors precious little with which to govern. With no records to check, land ownership has been difficult to establish. That has made tearing down structures, not to mention building new ones, next to impossible in many neighborhoods.

But the main problem is this: neither the Haitian government nor any of the countless NGOs that have descended on the country are capable of directing vast sums of money in the business of large-scale disaster recovery and reconstruction. In fact, disbursing the funds that have landed is proving so difficult that the Red Cross has stopped actively soliciting donations, and the World Bank, which has been holding donor-nation money as it comes in, has deliberately slowed the flow of cash to Port-au-Prince. The groups vying for money are experts at emergency relief, and deft at erecting hospitals and schools in nondisaster situations. But that doesn't mean they know how to rebuild entire cities from the ground up. …

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