Earthquake rubble stymies rebuilding in Haiti

Lack of equipment, governmental coordination faulted in recovery effort

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“Personally, I don’t think Port-au-Prince will ever be cleared,” said 47-year-old Yvon Clerisier, an artist working a temporary job clearing rubble with a rusty shovel for a private homeowner. He wore torn jeans, a sweaty T-shirt and sandals, and was covered in a fine dust.

Mr. Clerisier was one of a dozen men working in temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The property owner, Gregory Antoine, said he paid the crew $1,200 for three weeks of work.

“People want to work,” Mr. 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’s not for lack of trying. The nonprofit group CHF International spent about $5 million of USAID money on heavy machinery and paying Haitians to remove rubble from specific sites.

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 said. “And clearing it is not as simple as people think.”

Mr. Strode’s big worry is that debris won’t be cleared fast enough and that 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,” he said. “If you come back in a year, and the rubble hasn’t been cleared, it will be grown over, subject to landslides and unstable.”

Mr. Strode, who coordinated the removal of nearly 290,000 cubic yards of material in three months, said a major obstacle to demolishing buildings has been the lack of property records, which either were destroyed in the quake or never existed at all.

Without an owner’s consent, it is difficult to remove debris, he said. Another problem: Strode often received approval to demolish a building such as a hospital or a school — even when nearby homes were at risk.

“You cannot wantonly go in and demolish,” he said. “There’s a liability issue.”

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

Another hurdle is dumping the debris.

While many private landowners and others are dumping the rubble in the streets, canals or countryside, there’s only one place in all of Haiti where nongovernmental organizations using U.S. money can take contaminated rubble: 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.”

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