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Rubble clogs Haitian capital 8 months after ruinous quake

From the dusty rock mounds lining the streets to a National Palace which looks like it's vomiting concrete from its core, rubble is a ubiquitous reminder of Haiti's devastating earthquake.
Image: Earthquake rubble in Haiti
Women gather earlier this month in an area damaged by Jan. 12 earthquake in the Fort Nationale neighborhood, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.Ramon Espinosa / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

From the dusty rock mounds lining the streets to a National Palace that looks like it's vomiting concrete from its core, rubble is a ubiquitous reminder of Haiti's devastating earthquake.

Rubble is everywhere in this capital city: cracked slabs, broken-up cinder blocks, half-destroyed buildings that still spill bricks and pulverized concrete on 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.

Complexities over rubble
Government officials and outside aid groups say rubble removal is the priority before Haiti can rebuild. 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 property 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.

Projects funded by USAID and the U.S. Department of Defense have spent more than $98.5 million to remove 882,000 cubic meters (1,153,620 cubic yards) of rubble. Because all the equipment needs to be shipped to Haiti, and because land to dump the debris is scarce and expensive, the cost is high.

Also, no single person in the Haitian government has been declared in charge of clearing the rubble.

'There's not a master plan'
This means foreign nongovernmental organizations have taken on the rubble removal task themselves, often fighting for a small pool of available money and contracts. The work is done piecemeal, with little coordination.

"There's not a master plan," sighed Eric Overvest, country director for the U.N. Development Program. "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, approved a $17 million plan to clear rubble from six neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The six neighborhoods have not yet been selected, he added, and it is 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 more machinery is needed. Everyone agrees that recovery will take decades, and the slower the rubble removal, the longer the recovery.

Rubble a part of life
Most Haitians simply are 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," acknowledges Overvest. "We can't just go with wheelbarrows to remove it."

Still, that is 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," shrugged 47-year-old Yvon Clerisier, an artist who was working a temporary job clearing rubble with a rusty shovel for a private homeowner on a recent summer day. He wore torn jeans, a sweaty T-shirt and sandals, and was covered in a fine dust.

Clerisier was one of a dozen men in his crew; in 100-plus degree heat. 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 is not for lack of trying. The nonprofit CHF International spent about $5 million of USAID money on heavy machinery and paying Haitians to remove rubble from specific sites.

Not a simple task
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 job.

"Rubble isn't sexy," the Californian admits. "And clearing it is not as simple as people think."

Strode's big worry: that debris will not be cleared fast enough and 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," said Strode. "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 287,750 cubic yards of material in three months, said one acute problem emerged when he tried to demolish buildings. Property records were either destroyed in the quake or never existed at all, and without an owner's consent, it was difficult to remove the debris. Another problem: Strode often would receive approval to demolish, say, a public building such as a hospital or a school, and nearby homes would be put at risk.

"There's a liability issue," he said.

Strode told of a multistory hospital that had pancaked; an elderly woman living precariously close to the debris was scared that the hospital demolition also would take down her home.

"She should be scared," Strode said. "This is dangerous stuff."

Strode is no longer doing rubble removal. The grant money ran out and has not yet been renewed.

Dumping the debris
While many private landowners and others are dumping the rubble in the streets, canals or countryside, there is but one place in all of Haiti where NGOs using U.S. money can take contaminated rubble. It is 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 hemisphere, so it is not that surprising that recovery is slow.

"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."

Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.