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."
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.
In the meantime, at least one more building project looms: building other cities. Some experts and Haitian officials like Ambassador Joseph say recovery plans should include efforts to bolster towns outside of Port-au-Prince that are absorbing large populations of people fleeing from the capital. Frantz-Antoine Leconte, a Port-au-Prince native and professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, notes that the city's original plan called for some 250,000 residents: "Now we have 2.5 million."
While government officials and aid groups focus on restoring basic services to Port-au-Prince and beyond, they also have to face new challenges: Thousands of new amputees will need a capital city far more handicap accessible than the old Port-au-Prince. The city also will need medical facilities able to handle huge volumes of patients with long-term needs like intense physical rehabilitation and in-depth spiritual and psychological care for trauma. "It's like one problem on top of each other on a pile of other problems," said Leconte.
Leconte offers a long sigh when asked if the city of his youth can recover: "I don't want to say that I'm pessimistic, but it will take a lot for Haiti to come back." The professor, who fled Haiti's political instability in 1970, joins other experts in suggesting a couple of basic principles to carry out rebuilding efforts: Establish an international coalition to help manage the efforts and aid, and let the Haitian government stay involved. Despite past problems with corruption, says Leconte, "The Haitian government cannot be absent."
Similar proposals may be in the works: The Miami Herald reported that a copy of a plan designed by the U.S. State Department called for a Haitian Development Authority made up Haitians and outsiders to plan and coordinate billions of dollars of foreign aid for at least a decade. Similar plans call for a central agency to coordinate efforts and track funds, though they differ on who to put in charge and how to manage the efforts. The major area of agreement: A central agency with outside checks and balances from a coalition of foreign groups could help control confusion and maintain accountability that is usually lacking in Haitian politics.
Leconte hopes such an international partnership could work. He longs to see Port-au-Prince return to some of the better conditions he remembers during his childhood. "Sometimes you go there and you go down the street-you take a look at where you grew up and tears come to your eyes," he says. "You just see the misery."
But though he's hopeful, Leconte is also realistic about what recovery for Port-au-Prince really means: "It's going to be a very slow process, unless we are expecting miracles."
'Still in shock' | Haiti is hit by a massive earthquake followed by aftershocks, with an epicenter near the capital, Port-au-Prince | Mindy Belz and Jamie Dean | Jan. 12, 2010
Helping Haiti | WORLD provides a list of relief organizations accepting donations to assist earthquake victims in Haiti | The Editors | Jan. 13, 2010
Search and rescue | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 13, 2010
In the dark | Haitian-Americans hope to contact loved ones and quickly send aid back home to family and friends | Alisa Harris | Jan. 13, 2010
Weeping and waiting | Haitian earthquake victims await help, but obstacles slow relief efforts | Jamie Dean | Jan. 14, 2010
Desperation | Too many Haitians are in a holding pattern awaiting aid, as relief organizations try to make progress | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Long night | With tens of thousands of casualties, Haitians weep and wait for morning | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Deliverance | A group of orphans arrive safely in Pittsburgh while relief organizations report progress in Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 19, 2010
Crying for help | Hard-pressed Haitians seek assistance as aid groups face logistical challenges | Jamie Dean | Jan. 21, 2010
Leaving Port | Beyond the capital city are rural communities equally devastated by the quake and in need of help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
The new normal | As life and death continue their morbid mingling, relief groups forge ahead to help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
Finding home | Now that search-and-rescue efforts have been called off, attention turns to providing shelter for survivors | Jamie Dean | Jan. 23, 2010
Chaotic aid | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan | Jamie Dean | Jan. 28, 2010
Aftershock | Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters | Jamie Dean | Jan. 29, 2010
Homecoming | For Haitians orphaned before the quake, it means leaving home and starting over | Alisa Harris | Jan. 29, 2010
Crisis giving | Instant need calls for long-term strategy | Rusty Leonard | Jan. 29, 2010
An indecent grief | First lamentations, then comfort that strengthens more than soothes | Mindy Belz | Jan. 29, 2010
Hope for Haiti? (audio file) | Hear WORLD news editor Jamie Dean discuss her visit to the earthquake-ravaged country | Nick Eicher | Feb. 1, 2010
Despair and salvation | While the UN grapples with unruly crowds, The Salvation Army peacefully distributes food | Jamie Dean | Feb. 2, 2010
Crossing lines | Failing to heed sound advice, 10 Americans now find themselves facing kidnapping charges in Haiti | Jamie Dean | Feb. 4, 2010
Haiti's plight (audio file) | A discussion of the country's days of devastation and moments of deliverance | Jamie Dean | Feb. 5, 2010
Stress management | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom | Jamie Dean | Feb. 12, 2010
Taking charge | In quake aftermath, build new cities, says Haitian ambassador (and Bible translator) Raymond Joseph | Mindy Belz | Feb. 12, 2010
Houses of God | Grand-Goave, Haiti | The Editors| Feb. 12, 2010
Living water | Water Missions International offers long-term solutions for clean, drinkable water | Angela Lu | Feb. 13, 2010
Building blocks | While Christian Aid Ministries provides for the immediate needs of quake victims, it looks ahead to helping the country rebuild | Angela Lu | Feb. 16, 2010
Close quarters | ActionAid helps homeless Haitians deal with sanitation and security issues at camps set up in Port-au-Prince | Angela Lu | Feb. 23, 2010
Hardest hit | With nearly half a million orphaned children before the quake, Haiti's challenge to parent them just got bigger | Jamie Dean | Feb. 26, 2010
Hope in the darkness | World Hope International offers Haitians practical assistance and spiritual guidance | Angela Lu | March 24, 2010
Night crawlers | A new disaster threatens defenseless women and children in Haitian tent cities: rape | Jamie Dean | March 25, 2010
Homecoming | Missionary Patrick Lataillade, who nearly died in the quake, returned to help Haitians this week | Angela Lu | March 27, 2010
Hashing out Haiti | As the UN makes recovery plans, Haitians struggle for the basic necessities for survival | Jamie Dean | March 31, 2010