PETIONVILLE, Haiti -- More than 300 people are living in tents on the community soccer field here, one of the better-off suburbs of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The camp teems with children and pregnant women who take refuge in a concession stand in storms. A World Vision medical clinic is the only link here to the massive relief operations that arose in the wake of the powerful earthquake that devastated the country Jan. 12.
"Every person here needs help," said James Tabuteau, 22, a college student who took refuge in the camp after he lost his home in the earthquake. "We need food. We can't find anything to eat. We need water, we need toilets, we need anything you can use for life."
Tabuteau is among some 1.2 million Haitians left homeless and vulnerable as the rainy season approaches with storms that figure to send deadly mud waves down hillsides stripped bare by years of deforestation. And then there will be the hurricane season, which begins in June.
"We will certainly have landslides," said Edmond Mulet, the new top representative for the United Nations here. "What the earthquake did not bring down, the rains will, because all the hillsides are very fragile now."
More than 200 years of poverty and environmental degradation had left Haiti more vulnerable to storms and natural disasters than most. But the earthquake leveled the nation's institutions. It destroyed almost all colleges and schools in the Port-au-Prince area, reduced churches to rubble, flattened government offices and police stations.
So it is up to aid workers to figure out how to quickly move more than 240,000 families out of flimsy shelters and into storm-resistant quarters. Meanwhile, the Haitian government is ordering a massive national damage assessment and rebuilding plan on a scale that dwarfs the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 230,000 people in 14 countries.
Said Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, "This is a chance for Haiti to grab this opportunity to redefine its future."
Keen to take advantage of a large international presence in Haiti and a New York donors conference scheduled for March 31, Haitian authorities have given the United Nations and aid workers three weeks to review the needs of the entire country, not just quake-hit areas. While grand planning is necessary, officials say, the effort is stealing resources from efforts to shelter the homeless from the upcoming storm season.
With the post-disaster needs assessment (PDNA) and a dollar figure for that work in hand, Haitian President René Préval plans to ask international donors to not only protect his people from floods and hurricanes but to rebuild Haiti from the ground up -- with new roads, factories, stronger buildings and more productive farms.
Such a gargantuan effort is straining the capabilities of the world's disaster-response and recovery capabilities, as Haiti's predicament drifts from the headlines, relief officials say.
"We're talking about a recovery process that's 10 to 15 years," said Nicole Rencoret, an official with the U.N. Development Programme. "How the hell do you come up with that in two to three weeks?"
It is not even clear who will represent the Haitian government during the recovery. Many of Haiti's best civil servants -- those who were still at their desks past 4 p.m. when the earthquake struck -- are dead, and the surviving leaders are more famous for forcing six changes to government in as many years. And though Préval is nominally in charge his government, he is facing a constitutional crisis -- two-thirds of parliamentary terms end in May and the president himself has only a year left to serve.
If enough long-term support can be reached, Haiti could be renewed, ending 25 years of dependence on foreign aid. If not, the homeless at the camp here say they will take matters into their own hands, rebuilding Port-au-Prince and other cities in the flimsy manner they had before the earthquake.
"We can't live in a situation like this," said Pierre Louis Rock Jolibois, the community leader at the Petionville camp. "Waiting is a bad thing."
'We cannot miss that chance'
There are grave risks in expanding the scope of the recovery plan beyond rebuilding destroyed cities, both international and Haitian government officials say.
Consider what happened in the wake of hurricanes in 2008 that nearly destroyed the city of Gonaïves.
There were calls then to rebuild Gonaïves better than it was before. Hundreds of development agencies responded, but only a handful remained a year later. Construction on flood protections there, now frozen, was still under way when the quake hit the capital. Funding pools for more ambitious schemes had all but dried up.
Now officials are asking the world to stay engaged in Haiti at a very high level for more than a decade.
The international presence in Haiti today is just as massive as it was in the weeks following the earthquake. U.S. Army soldiers here say they have been told to expect to stay for at least another month. But just as the number of journalists has dwindled, aid workers are also expected to start leaving. Nevertheless, teams on the ground are pressing forward with grand visions.
"Unlike many other post-disaster situations, Haiti is in a position to simultaneously take care of the affected population but also have a clear look at the future," said Kim Bolduc, the top humanitarian coordinator here. "Haiti has been just waiting for an opportunity. Unfortunately it came from a disaster, but we cannot miss that chance."
Mulet, the top U.N. representative, acknowledges the risk -- his predecessor was killed in the quake -- but insists there is no other choice but to use the earthquake to reverse economic, political and ecological crises that have set Haiti back time and time again.
"This is why the government is adamant that the PDNA ... is not separate of the development programs that they have set only two years ago after the hurricanes in 2008," he said in an interview.
Mulet has a strategy that he, Préval and Bellerive all vow will work, one they will present at the donors conference in New York.
Relief officials here are now struggling to coordinate the efforts of hundreds of governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations that want to be engaged in every aspect of recovery -- from water treatment and sanitation to reforestation, infrastructure building and even education.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is said to have 102 different projects lined up or now under way. The European Union has about 43, the Organization of American States (OAS) about 23, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) around 17. The response is typical of most post-disaster operations, but many here fear it could waste resources and duplicate work.
"Everybody wants to do everything," Mulet said. "I think this is an opportunity also for the international community to do things differently."
Focus on one project, one place
Mulet and others are telling all the actors engaged here to adopt just one project, or focus on one region and set clear goals and benchmarks.
France, for instance, has already promised to rebuild Haiti's government buildings, one of a dozen or so other areas where they want to be involved. Mulet is telling the French to instead commit to rebuilding central Port-au-Prince and nothing else. Canada will be asked to only focus on Leogane, a smaller city that was 95 percent destroyed. The Latin American states are being told to zero in on Jacmel, a historic city founded in 1698.
The Inter-American Development Bank has promised for decades to repair the country's abysmal road network; the bank is now being asked to make good on that promise and build at least 500 kilometers of new highways.
Haiti has no civil birth or registry system in place, so the United Nations wants the OAS to assemble one, using the data it gathered in organizing voter registrations. Haiti's land title and registry system is in shambles, something the European Union has been asked to fix. Other groups will be told to focus just on reforestation, agriculture and even coastal restorations to boost the nation's potential as a tourist destination.
Mulet has seen this approach work before, specifically in his native Guatemala in the wake of an earthquake in 1976. There Spain, Norway, Mexico, the United States, and numerous banks and agencies all gave a hand, but they kept their focus narrow, he said.
"They all adopted one place, one neighborhood, one city, one town, and in two years they had rebuilt all the churches, all the municipalities, all the court houses, all the police stations in all these different areas," Mulet said. "You were not having everybody tripping over each other."
But the price tag this time around promises to be massive. The final bill for rebuilding coastal cities shattered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was put at $13 billion spent over five years. The new initiative in Haiti can be expected to cost many billions of dollars more, experts are warning, even though various development initiatives have struggled in the past to stay adequately financed long before the quake.
Most important will be the establishment and enforcement of new building codes that will make structures more resilient to earthquakes, and by default hurricanes and flash flooding. A system for determining land claims and for financing and tracking the rebuilding of better structures will need to go hand in hand with code enforcement, as seen in the reconstruction of Banda-Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami.
For Port-au-Prince, earthquakes on the order of the one that struck Jan. 12 are 200-year events.
The first time the capital was destroyed in a quake was in 1750, when the city was little more than a small colonial port consisting primarily of wood structures. Fatalities were few.
But geologists warn that Port-au-Prince does not have another 250 years before the next quake. After the 1750 disaster, another powerful quake hit the city in 1771. If the geological pattern holds, Haiti's center can expect another severe quake in about 20 years. Cap-Haïtien, a major city on the north coast, also faces earthquake risk.
The United Nations has an existing memorandum of understanding with the Washington, D.C.-based International Code Council (ICC).
The U.S. State Department builds all its foreign installations to ICC standards, which is why its embassy in Port-au-Prince survived the quake virtually unscathed. Michael Armstrong, a spokesman at ICC, said his organization is still waiting to hear whether it will be called upon to develop a strategy for Haiti's cities.
"The U.N. is talking to us and, we assume, talking to a variety of people to come up with what the best package would be for Haiti," said Armstrong. "We've given them some information for their consideration, and they said they would be getting back to us."
Armstrong said the ICC is eager to lend a hand, but only if it can train and employ locals to do the work. "We think that it's important that there be a local capability that ultimately can, on a regular basis, enforce codes and inspect buildings," he said. "Without that there's not going to be a sustainable capability for the future."
That is exactly what U.N. and Haitian government officials have in mind. While governments and international organizations will assume most of the heavy lifting, the bulk of the manpower that is needed has to come from the population, not only to generate jobs in a country where most are unemployed but to also to build up the nation's capacity to take care of its own needs.
Decades of civil unrest and poverty have pushed many capable Haitians abroad, experts say, so having those that remain working alongside international relief agencies to rebuild the nation should help bring some of that lost expertise back.
Calls are going out for the diaspora to return and help, but persuading Haitians living in Canada or the United States to do so will require major reform. Haiti's constitution does not allow for dual citizenship, leaving those who have emigrated little reason to maintain bases in both their native and adopted homelands.
PDNA organizers say they will lean heavily on existing data and should complete the bulk of their work by mid-March, but they warn that the time crunch and working conditions will inevitably affect the quality of the end-product.
The PDNA headquarters is in a military-style field tent set up at the United Nations' main base. Staffers with the United Nations, World Bank, Red Cross and other organizations say they are working 18- to 20-hour days and sleeping in tents or on cots next to their desks.
Time is also running out for the shattered Haitian government to organize itself.
The canceled elections were supposed to usher in a new Parliament and president by February 2011. Michelle Montas, an former Haitian journalist who is now advising Mulet, warns that her nation's lawmakers and ministers have only a short time to resolve their differences and come up with an interim solution.
Prolonging the impasse means donors won't know to whom support or financial assistance should be directed. The government has no access to hundreds of millions of dollars going to the aid agencies and will be unable to pay its surviving civil service this month, she said.
"There has to be some sort of national consensus on how they're going to deal with the next 15 months politically," Montas said. "If a solution is not found, you're going to have civil unrest in this country."
Storm shelters needed
As officials race to make long-term plans, the immediate priority of aid workers is to move the displaced population out of tent cities and into sturdier structures.
Gregg McDonald, an official with the Netherlands Red Cross Society who is coordinating the shelter strategy, said step one involves distributing shelter materials to all who need them. Plastic sheeting is preferable to tents, he said, as they provide more living space and can be upgraded and reused later. But plans are afoot to secure corrugated metal sheeting and lumber to allow displaced Haitians to build new transitional structures.
"The shelters will be small and strong and constructed to last longer than 12 months," McDonald said.
His team will also try to get Haitians to build shelters as close to their original homes as possible, he said, to facilitate the long-term effort to sort out land claims and build new residencies that can withstand whatever nature will throw at them next.
But even wood and corrugated metal shacks are not likely to hold up to tropical storms and hurricanes. So to prepare, officials are trying to come up with a list of the largest, most sturdy buildings left standing in the cities that they can use as emergency storm shelters if needed.
Constant Jean, a community leader now living in a plastic shanty just outside the Port-au-Prince airport, said it is a good plan to use existing structures, but he worries that not enough buildings are left to provide safe shelters. What he said he fears most is delay in getting wood and metal sheets out, as existing shelters cannot hold up to the rains.
"The plan for evacuation is still open for negotiation between the government and some associations, but to do that we need shelters to move the people to," he said. "It's the rainy season here. If it rains we are in trouble because we don't have any strong shelters."
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