Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press/AP

The search for miracles

Cities 2010 | Port-au-Prince is a city desperately seeking turnaround-and that's before the earthquake

Issue: "Cities of God and Man," March 27, 2010

A few weeks after an earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, the Haitian ambassador to the United States described the capital's pre-quake building standards: Ambassador Raymond Joseph told an American audience that any Haitian could take "two bricks and mortar and build, and say, 'This is my house.'"

Damage from the 7.0-magnitude quake proved his point: In many areas of Port-au-Prince, mountains of rubble showed little sign of the reinforcements that could have saved some structures-and lives. In other places, houses built with low-quality concrete crumbled like sand castles. The evidence was painfully clear: Man-made failures turned a terrible natural disaster into a far worse catastrophe.

For Joseph, the destruction wasn't completely devastating news, especially if it meant a chance to fix old problems. "There is a silver lining," he said. "What was not politically possible was done by the earthquake. We will rebuild differently." He promised: "The future of Haiti will be very different from the past."

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It's a high hope shared by governments, aid groups, volunteers, and millions of suffering Haitians in Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions: Could a city in ruins, long plagued by systemic problems like poverty and corruption, rise from the rubble with better prospects? The more daunting question: How?

That's a question that international aid groups will try to tackle at a March 31 conference on Haiti reconstruction at UN headquarters in New York. There may be as many ideas as experts, but a common theme already has emerged: Reconstructing Port-au-Prince will require a complicated mix of both basic reforms and innovative solutions to new problems.

Basic reforms have been long needed for the most essential services. Running water and electricity have been luxuries in many areas of the urban region packed with as many as 3 million people. For example, only 46 percent of Haitians had sustainable access to potable water before the quake. Another example: Before the quake, a dilapidated grid delivered an average of 10 hours of electricity a day to just a quarter of the population in Haiti. Less than half of those paid for the service.

The state-owned Electricite d'Haiti has been notoriously broke and politically corrupt, with too many staff members and too little production. Rebuilding the grid and reforming the old system could take years of time and millions of dollars. Like many infrastructure problems in Haiti-such as broken roads and busted sanitation systems-electrical instability is tied to political instability. "The technical aspect can be addressed," said Ernest Paultre, chief engineer for Haiti at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). "But the problem is a social one."

Social problems have also led to lax building standards that allowed many Haitians to build flimsy homes on deforested hillsides. Most experts insist that enforcing some form of basic building codes is vital to avoiding another massive disaster and encouraging decent living standards in the meantime. The Feb. 27 earthquake in Chile at least partially proved that point: The 8.8-magnitude quake released 500 times more energy than Haiti's quake but caused far less damage. Early death toll estimates in Chile stood at over 800 people but the government later reduced that number to 500. Haiti's estimated toll: over 200,000.

Some factors that lessened the damage were natural: The Chilean epicenter was off-shore and deeper than the epicenter in Haiti's land-based quake. Chile's earthquake also struck a region with far fewer residents than Port-au-Prince. But one man-made factor is undeniable: The Chilean government has enforced strict building codes for nearly 40 years. That means while the suffering in Chile is severe, it could have been far worse if more buildings were built like many of the structures in Haiti.

But rebuilding Port-au-Prince isn't a simple matter of building better structures. Building better homes requires spending more money, something that's long been in desperately short supply for most Haitians. That means effectively rebuilding the city requires building an effective economy. Pre-quake economic statistics were bleak: More than 54 percent of Haitians were living on less than $1 a day, according to USAID. The unemployment rate: between 70 and 80 percent. Haiti's rank out of 174 countries in the UN's Human Development Index: 154.

Building an economy is far more complicated than building a house, and experts disagree on the best methods. Some call for an unprecedented infusion of foreign aid over a long period of time. Others call for an infusion of carefully distributed private capital to help jumpstart a languishing economy and create jobs that will allow Haitians to invest in their own long-term recovery.


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