UNITED NATIONS -- Anyone who fears that life in Haiti won't return to normal after last week's devastating earthquake should be encouraged by the recovery along the African and Asian coasts devastated a little more than five years ago by an earthquake and resulting tsunami that swept away cities and killed 250,000 people and left 2.5 million others homeless.
Today, most areas swept away by the December 2004 catastrophe have been almost completely rebuilt.
It is possible, aid officials say, that visitors unaware of the Indian Ocean quake and tsunami might visit coastal communities in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia and not realize what had happened.
"Coming up on five years now, by and large, the obvious effects of the tsunami have been kind of taken away visually," said Jeff Wright, a humanitarian affairs adviser at World Vision. "A lot of the urban areas are rebuilt. Houses are back up, buildings are back up."
Aceh province was closest to the epicenter of the 2004 earthquake and hardest hit, with its capital Banda Aceh was left largely in ruins. Today the city is almost entirely rebuilt with infrastructure better and more durable than what existed previously, said Rod Volway, program director for Mercy Corps' Aceh, Indonesia, project. All that is left to be done, he said, is finish repair of a coastal road.
"Save for particular sites, I cannot recognize the Aceh of today as the one I saw in January 2005 myself," Volway said.
U.N. and nongovernmental relief officials with post-tsunami experience are now heading to Haiti. Even as search crews continue digging for survivors and humanitarian workers struggle to get a handle on aid delivery, planners are working on designs for the rebirth of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
Next week, U.N. agencies plan to assess satellite imagery to ascertain the full extent of the damage and come up with an estimate of how much it will cost to replace lost homes and public buildings. Officials refuse to guess a dollar figure, but it will be massive. To date, the tsunami-rebuilding effort is estimated to have cost more than $13 billion.
"We are starting already to get ready for the recovery and reconstruction," said Pablo Ruiz, an official at the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) with 15 years of experience in natural disaster response. "It's very important that this happens at an early stage because this will also stimulate the private market and the recovery of the lives of the people."
Work on the ground is also under way. This week the United Nations, U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) and nonprofits began operating "cash for work" schemes, hiring Haitians affected by the quake to clear rubble and do other cleanups. UNDP's program pays thousands of workers $5 a day, which is more than twice the average daily income in Haiti and provides for the gradual return of economic activity to its capital city.
With upward of 200,000 dead and Port-au-Prince in tatters, the Haitian situation has been presented by many as hopeless. But others -- even survivors of the quake who lost friends and loved ones -- have been telling reporters that the quake's aftermath could offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring order and stability.
"If you look back in history, other cities that had been destroyed by earthquakes or by fires -- London and Lisbon are two that leap to mind -- were entirely rebuilt, magnificently," said the United Nations' Haiti communications director David Wimhurst. "Now, this would be a wonderful opportunity to rebuild Port-au-Prince."
On Dec. 26, 2004, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake shook the sea floor off Indonesia's northwestern tip. The quake was so powerful it shook the entire Earth; geologists recorded a vibration in the entire planet by about 1 centimeter. The quake also triggered a wall of water that swept across the Indian Ocean at speeds up to 370 miles per hour, ultimately slamming into the coastlines of 14 countries.
About 250,000 people were killed in a single day and 2.5 million others lost their homes, families and jobs.
The disaster spurred record outpouring of aid. It is estimated that about $13.5 billion was spent on the entire operation, from the immediate emergency relief period to today. Of that, $5.5 billion came from the public at large. Ninety-nine governments donated the rest.
Aid officials say cash of that magnitude will be needed to rebuild Haiti. But organizational acumen and a solid coordination of the rebuilding effort, which will involve hundreds of separate NGOs and government aid agencies, is equally critical.
Experts are looking to the post-tsunami playbook for clues as to how to proceed in Haiti.
After the tsunami, the World Bank organized a multi-donor fund to pool international financing, from which the affected governments could tap funds to pay for their national programs.
Indonesia's effort was arguably the most advanced. That nation suffered the greatest loss of life and property, with the final count at 129,775 people dead and 38,786 missing and presumed lost.
Officials in Indonesia set up the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, or BRR, a government body that answered directly to Jakarta but was imbued with enormous power to cut through red tape and make decisions quickly. Disparate U.N. agencies like UNDP and UNICEF, which often compete and duplicate work, responded by forming a U.N. Office for Recovery Coordination to make sure all Indonesia staff members were on the same page.
Under the system, all rebuilding and development programs had to be vetted and approved by BRR, with a strict application procedures and a benchmark of requirements enforced. Programs had to clearly spell out how the World Bank-monitored funds were spent and by whom, an effort to combat the corruption that often follows disasters.
As explained in a final report by the Tsunami Global Lessons Learned Project, "every agency submitted critical information on proposed projects, including funding sources, location, budget and performance indicators, before being given approval to work on tsunami recovery in Indonesia."
Similar structures were established in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In places hit by the tsunami, residents were first accommodated with temporary shelters, which were sometimes set up on the same land shared by their smashed homes. Citizens could then apply for funds to rebuild, with the option to do the work themselves or hire contractors.
Much of the work was spearheaded by NGOs or aid agencies, but all reconstruction projects were required to meet new codes designed to make buildings more resilient to all forces of nature, especially earthquakes and tsunamis but also hurricanes.
Local governments carried out regular inspections to ensure code compliance. BRR set up a Web site that used data captured by satellite to track the more than 120,000 separate projects -- users can zoom in on a single house and click to find information on who was building it and how.
These systems worked smoothly in most places, but less so elsewhere, particularly in parts of northern Sri Lanka where officials had to contend with the Tamil Tigers, an armed rebel movement that controlled much of the affected areas.
"Some did better than others," said World Vision's Wright. "It can also be the level of cooperation that they got from local government at the very local level, whether there was push-back, mistrust, or whatever reason, that often showed in the final product."
Relief officials and governments experimented with different initiatives as they went, and say that Haitian authorities should be encouraged to do the same. The Maldives set up the "adopt and island" scheme, an Internet marketing campaign run by UNDP drew in $18 million.
Mercy Corps and others hired out-of-work fishers to salvage and rebuild damaged ships, or provided them with cash grants and tools to build entirely new vessels. Today the fishing fleets in affected communities are back up and running, more profitable than before thanks to training in better techniques and equipment aimed at netting larger catches.
'A number of challenges'
The tsunami recovery faced setbacks and conflicts, and the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince will likely see the same.
"Naturally, given the pressurized environment, the high-profile task at hand, and the sheer size of the recovery community, coordination presented a number of challenges," the intergovernmental Tsunami Global Lessons report said. "Although numerous sectoral and thematic working groups were set up, coordination progressed in fits and starts and tended to address information sharing rather than strategic planning."
Early on, meetings were held that failed to reach conclusions. NGOs competed for funding as it trickled out. And constant media attention and demands of quicker action pressed organizations to work fast threatening the "build it back better" mantra that had inspired the initiative and is now being echoed in the Haiti reconstruction planning. Corruption and corner-cutting were constant concerns.
Officials are aware of the past mistakes and fits-and-starts that plagued the tsunami recovery early on, but nevertheless similar organizational structures will likely be put in place for Haiti. For the tsunami the emergency phase ended in 90 days, and U.N., USAID and NGO workers are expecting the current confusion and rush for aid in Haiti to last no longer than three months, and by then the authorities should have organized a plan to rebuild.
"It very likely will be a housing scheme by which people will receive allocations to rebuild their houses, or maybe they will be given the houses under a big reconstruction scheme," said UNDP's Ruiz. "That's to be determined in the reconstruction process."
But complications are expected to be far greater in Haiti.
The Indian Ocean tsunami destroyed only the outlying areas of countries, leaving central governments to organize efforts under U.N. and NGO guidance. Haiti's government -- weak and disorganized before the quake -- is in tatters and is incapable of leading any project as massive as the undertaking that awaits Port-au-Prince.
Wright, who landed in Port-au-Prince last night, said what he fears most is the unknown. With a different culture, history and political realities, he said, it may turn out that Haiti is not suited for the kinds of organizational structures and practices that proved successful in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He and others are bracing for problems and the inevitable criticism that will come.
"We can anticipate periods of real questioning and times when it's going to really take a lot of concerted effort on the part of NGOs like World Vision to understand what's happening locally," Wright said.
Nevertheless, he added, "We need to transition very quickly into the early recovery. We can't be passing out food and stuff for too long."
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