Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Starting from scratch in Haiti's Port-au-Prince ruins

Speaking to an American audience on C-SPAN, the Haitian ambassador to the United States recently sketched an optimistic future for the island nation's capital city Port-au-Prince — a smaller, well-built city to replace the teeming, chaotic and shoddily built sprawl of almost 3 million people that was virtually wiped away by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

"There is a silver lining," Raymond Joseph said. "What was not politically possible, was done by the earthquake. We will rebuild differently. ... The future of Haiti will be very different from the past."

Will it? Only if the Haitian government and the international community manage to overcome long-standing obstacles of poverty and poor governance that have dogged the country for decades.

Experts in foreign development and disaster say there are few modern parallels with the Haiti earthquake — a profound catastrophe striking at the urban heart of a national capital, crippling the institutions of the whole country that was already beleaguered and without a fully functioning government.

"I think Bosnia, Sarajevo," said J. Brian Atwood, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Clinton. "Never have I seen anything this bad in one urban area."

Not only did the earthquake take untold lives, it destroyed the core of authority: the National Palace, the parliament, the police headquarters and 13 of the government's 15 ministries. And the two surviving ministries have been declared unsafe. Entire neighborhoods may have to be razed and rebuilt.

The government was weak before the quake, struggling to provide even basic services to an impoverished population while trying to shed its reputation as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

Where to start?

With so many obstacles, and no ready blueprint, the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince will be a minefield of hard questions with no clear answer, experts say.

"The first question is, whose Port-au-Prince is being rebuilt?" said Lawrence Vale, an urban-planning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specializing in disaster recovery. "Who is really empowered here? And where will the resources that come from outside be targeted?"

The scale and strategy of the reconstruction are so far unknown. The United Nations will convene a meeting of foreign ministers this week in Montreal to begin discussing long-term plans.

But the Haitian government already has taken steps to establish settlements for evacuees outside Port-au-Prince that could become permanent, while shrinking the old capital's footprint. Experts warn, however, that such mass-relocation schemes in other catastrophes have usually failed, because they isolate people from the jobs and economic opportunity that drew them to the city in the first place.

"These solutions will always be temporary unless there is the support of job creation," said Haitian businesswoman Youri Mevs, whose family runs some of the country's largest private enterprises.

The head of the International Monetary Fund has called for a Haiti "Marshall Plan," invoking the reconstruction efforts in Germany and Japan after World War II. But development experts caution that any long-term plans must not be imposed on Haiti by outsiders.

"The real fear is a large agency is going to come in and dictate how Port-au-Prince gets rebuilt, and you end up in this situation where there is a lot of fear and resentment," said Cameron Sinclair of the nonprofit Architects for Humanity, which has worked in disasters worldwide.

The ultimate cost is anyone's guess, although at a weekend discussion of architects, academics and government officials under a tree in Petionville, the number $3 billion was offered by Patrick Delatour, an architect and Haiti's minister of tourism charged with evaluating the destruction.

That figure, covering publicly owned buildings and new homes for some quake victims, broke down like this: $2 billion for schools and health facilities, $500 million for parks, hotels and other infrastructure rehabilitation and $500 million for courthouses, jails and government ministries. It also includes a proposal to build 20 villages of 1,000 new homes each with schools and health facilities. Delatour warned the number was only an early estimate and could easily spiral much higher.


Virtually everyone agrees that any recovery will take decades.

Through the ages, cities have received death blows. Almost 2,000 years ago, Pompeii was buried by volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius. Less than 15 years ago, much of the Caribbean island of Montserrat was engulfed by pyroclastic flows. Its capital, Plymouth, is now a graveyard of buildings, half buried in volcanic debris. A new capital is being built on another part of the island.

Sometimes cities recover. Nagasaki and Hiroshima made comebacks after being blown apart and poisoned with radiation during World War II. And San Francisco, wrecked in a 1906 earthquake and fire, launched an ambitious reconstruction effort within days.

On Dec. 23, 1972, an earthquake destroyed 600 blocks of Nicaragua's capital, killing more than 10,000 people. The world responded, but the regime of President Anastasio Somoza siphoned off the aid. Managua's downtown was never rebuilt and today remains in ruins. The quake fueled Nicaraguans' dissatisfaction with Somoza, who was eventually was overthrown.

Haiti's magnitude-7 earthquake was even worse than Nicaragua's because — in addition to killing an estimated 200,000 people and leaving 2 million homeless — it left the country virtually without a functioning government. It wrecked the presidential palace, parliament, government ministries, the U.N. headquarters and the Roman Catholic cathedral, among thousands of other structures.

Ben Ramalingam, who studies disasters around the world and the effectiveness of the responses, argues that Haiti is worse off than the dozen countries swamped by the tsunami, because they at least still had working governments that could help citizens and channel aid.

Where there has been a functioning state, there have been other impressive results. In 1985, Mexico City experienced an earthquake even bigger than Haiti's, a magnitude 8.1, but few signs of it remain. Skyscrapers, with earthquake-proof design, have gone up.

Even in more advanced countries with strong governments, rebuilding from earthquakes can be long, complicated and expensive.

The Chinese government completely redesigned the city of Tangshan after a 1976 earthquake — rendering a new and larger city within six years.

"The central government was ordering what province would deliver what, where and when. It's the opposite extreme of Haiti," Vale said.

After an earthquake shattered the city of Kobe, Japan, in 1995, the Japanese government invested some $58 billion in the four-year reconstruction effort.

Haiti, on the other hand, will have to rely almost exclusively on foreign assistance: The country has a federal budget of just under $1 billion a year, and at least half of its revenue comes from foreign aid.

So the new Port-au-Prince may end up resembling Managua, where sections of the Nicaraguan capital remain in ruins today from an earthquake 37 years ago.

"Building back better is very expensive. In a place where the resources are very limited, that can be an empty call," Vale said.

Given the circumstances, experts say the best scenario for Haiti would have massive amounts of foreign aid channeled through nongovernmental organizations, both large and small, financing grass-roots programs to rebuild neighborhoods, with technical assistance supplied by the United States — while the government focuses on infrastructure and rebuilding important civic structures.

If Haiti is ever to lessen its reliance on foreign aid, however, it also must seize the chance to build up its relatively small private sector, said Mevs, whose family controls a large chunk of it. The key will be forging joint ventures with U.S. companies that can provide financing and expertise.

"There are Haitian companies that have the capacity to rebuild homes and ports, but there are not enough of them. If you're looking for skills, you will find them locally. If you're looking for capacity that will meet the magnitude of the need, no," Mevs said in Miami.


Reconstruction — informal and unregulated — will probably begin long before any long-range plan takes hold. Residents accustomed to scavenging and desperate for shelter may simply rebuild shantytowns rather than wait months or years for government action. Families with remittances from relatives abroad may also get a head start on rebuilding.

NGOs also will likely begin tackling small-scale projects, like homes and schools, just as many did before the earthquake — though perhaps with help from outside architects and engineers, with stronger quake resistance.

Architecture for Humanity's Sinclair said he already is talking to groups in Haiti about providing designs for simple schools and homes like those it developed in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami.

"USAID can go and hire some big contractor, but that's not what we're going to do," Sinclair said.

To be successful, any Port-au-Prince reconstruction plan must incorporate strong building standards and better planning, to minimize the effects of future earthquakes or storms, said Richard Stuart Olson, a Florida International University political-science professor who studies the political effects of disasters.

"Who is going to enforce plan review, engineering, design and construction? This will fall to the international community, or the U.N. or U.S.," Olson said.

Joseph, the Haitian ambassador, told C-SPAN that building rules could be enforced if the future Port-au-Prince is smaller. Before the earthquake, he said, any Haitian could take "two bricks and mortar and build and say, 'This is my house.' "

In an effort to move homeless victims out of Port-au-Prince, a Brazilian team already has started bulldozing Croix-des-Bouquets, eight miles outside the city, to make way for temporary housing for 10,000 people. A second location in Tabarre near the U.S. embassy also has been identified for 4,000 people and many other areas inside the city may end up also getting cleared to bare ground.


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