Image: School in Haiti
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP file
A police officer searches for victims at the site where the Grace Divine school partially collapsed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 12. Port-au-Prince Mayor Jean-Yves Jason estimates 60 percent of the capital's buildings are unsafe. 
updated 11/25/2008 7:05:51 PM ET 2008-11-26T00:05:51

The rumor shot like electricity through the Haitian capital: Another school was falling. Desperate parents and would-be rescuers ran through alleys, leaped over walls and wrestled with police to reach the scene.

Emergency crews arrived to find the school intact — vibrations caused by wind or traffic had simply sparked a panic. But at least a dozen students were injured rushing out of the building. A 19-year-old female student suffered heart failure and died in the hospital.

Such panics have been reported across the capital since the collapse of the College La Promesse killed nearly 100 people and injured 162 more. Though based on false rumors, they reflect a very real and well-founded fear.

Millions need to be relocated
Port-au-Prince Mayor Jean-Yves Jason estimates 60 percent of buildings in his city are unsafe, built shoddily and now standing on ground weakened by a torrential hurricane season. Petionville lawmaker Steven Benoit said 2 million people need to be relocated nationwide.

"There are no studies for these buildings. They aren't built by engineers," said Claude Prepetit, an engineer and geologist with Haiti's Bureau of Mines and Energy. "They just buy any materials they can find and have no respect for building rules."

In a decade fraught with violent upheaval, little attention was paid to building codes as Haiti's population grew from 6.8 million in 1998 to about 9 million today.

Families fleeing rural poverty and eroded fields have settled in slums in the hills that ring Port-au-Prince.

Pressed for space, they built upper stories onto homes, churches and schools out of chalky local cinderblock, held together with what little iron reinforcement and mortar they could afford.

One of those builders was the Pentecostal preacher and self-professed civil engineer Fortin Augustin. Despite having been denied a permit, he built his La Promesse church and school in a slum a short walk from the sturdy homes of foreign diplomats and wealthy Haitians in the suburb of Petionville.

In police custody
Even after a partial collapse eight years ago, the school continued to operate and was even visited by the staff of previous education ministries — who came to assess the curriculum, not building safety — new Education Minister Joel Jean-Pierre told The Associated Press.

Last year, Augustin constructed a second school, La Promesse College Evangelique Annex, which still stands on a remote hillside across Petionville. Its sloping concrete roof is held up by a temporary iron bar, and pieces of cinderblock wall crumble at the touch.

Jean-Pierre said his office was not aware of the annex until almost a week after the first school collapsed. Augustin is in police custody awaiting an investigation into likely charges of involuntary manslaughter and could not be reached for comment.

Alourde Alcee's 14-year-old daughter, Mackendia, was in class at the annex on Nov. 7 when cell phones started ringing with news of the disaster across town. The mother of five, who had been selling cookies to students, sent her daughter home and went to help, arriving as the bloody and broken bodies of children were being pulled from the rubble.

Like most Haitian parents, Alcee is unable to afford topflight private schools or to find space in the country's few publics. So she said she will continue sending her daughter to the La Promesse annex or another shoddily constructed school in hopes that education will help the girl escape from poverty.

"I don't have any land, I don't have a good house, but I can leave my children an education," said Alcee, who has three daughters but can only afford one $162.50 annual tuition this year. "When I die, they can go find work and do something with their lives."

Bloody images
For days after La Promesse fell, parents and students were consumed with bloody images of the dead and frantic rescue efforts on Haitian television and in newspapers. Then, five days later, a back-alley house containing a church school partially fell, injuring at least seven students and a teacher. Thousands of bystanders raced ambulances, U.N. peacekeepers and Red Cross vehicles to the scene.

Pushed back by U.N. and Haitian police, the crowd's nerves jumped to panic amid false rumors that a third school had collapsed nearby. Two children were injured in the melee that followed.

The next day a school emptied, and two students were injured falling down stairs in another panic. Witnesses said later that a piece of lumber had fallen harmlessly onto the roof from a nearby building site.

Daunting task
President Rene Preval has pledged to crack down on lawless construction. Three public schools were closed after the collapse for emergency renovations because of concerns over building safety, Jean-Pierre said.

But with a struggling education ministry unable to even catalog the schools that line dusty hillsides or fill bullet-pocked downtown districts in the capital, officials face a daunting task.

"Things have gone so far it's very difficult to say we have the right answers," said Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis. But she added that the government would pursue a combination of financial incentives for schools that meet building standards and punishment for building owners who do not comply.

Meanwhile, storefront schools are stacked one atop the other in downtown Port-au-Prince's rundown Bel Air district, competing for customers with bright signs and promises of price specials. Boys and girls in neat gingham uniforms cram into hovels that reek of the open-pit urinals nearby, scrawling rote Creole phrases onto blackboards.

The second floor of one primary school threatens to buckle atop worm-eaten wooden and cracked concrete pillars. "We've never had any inspectors here," said Monique Ocean, the school secretary and principal's wife.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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