PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The day the ground buckled, a $3.2 million crane crashed into the water off this country's main seaport, the pier crumbled, and cracked containers spilled into the sea.
Six months later, the crane and containers remain in the water and two floating barges have temporarily replaced the pier.
The Port-au-Prince seaport, a main economic driver of Haiti's economy, is critical to the country's recovery from one of the worst natural disasters in the Western Hemisphere. But six months since the Jan. 12 catastrophic earthquake, the facility remains crippled.
The international community and aid groups complain bitterly that Haiti's government has failed to present a master plan to revive the port sector — criticized as a pocket of government neglect, cronyism and fierce rivalries even before the disaster.
"The port is a broken asset," said Adrian van der Knaap, head of operations for World Food Program Haiti, one of the largest users of Haiti's ports.
"The island needs well-functioning ports. It can be much, much better than it is now."
'Fleecing' the poor
Samuel Perez, formerly U.S. military commander in charge of reopening the port, was more blunt.
"The Haitian government has to come to grips with how they are going to reconstruct that port," said Perez, who spent three months here. "The port people are very, very satisfied with the fact they are making money hand over fist. … They are fleecing poor Haitians."
Any long-term improvement in Haiti's economy depends on both repairing and reforming the country's ports system, including its underused and neglected ports. Tackling the ports and their entire supply chain, including customs clearance, could be the litmus test for a 31-member reconstruction commission chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
"A lot of issues are going to come on the table as a real condition to invest in Haiti and the port is one of the first on the list," Bellerive said. "I don't see how we can dodge on that."
But Haitian President René Préval's government, like Haitian governments since the main seaport was constructed in the 1970s, has refused to provide transparent and clear rules on how port facilities should operate, critics say.
The port — located next to a sprawling seaside slum and congested downtown — has come to symbolize the Haitian government's shortcomings:
Before the quake, the port was a cash cow, earning millions from a $310 wharfage tax on every 20-foot container brought into Haiti. But instead of investing the money in equipment and upgrades at all government ports, the money went to paying the salaries of hundreds of unnecessary and ghost employees, government officials said.
"The port became more of a social program rather than a commercial program," said Hughes Desgranges, senior adviser to the director general of the National Port Authority, the government overseer. "You have a port that can be the engine of the Haitian economy, but it's been badly steered."
At the same time, the government discouraged the expansion of private ports in the capital and other seaside cities, cornering the shipping market for the Port-au-Prince port.
Its flaws have made the port among the most expensive in the world for consumers and haulers. Although it falls under the auspices of the National Port Authority, a cadre of shipping agents and terminal owners operate everything from the cranes to the warehouses.
The port is also among the least efficient shipping hubs in the world, according to a recent survey by the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank. To complete shipment of a 20-foot container of dry goods to Haiti, it took an average of 33 days, the survey found, compared with 10 days to ship to the neighboring Dominican Republic's main port.
The same study estimates that the cost of port and terminal handling fees for Haiti is $700 for imports. In the Dominican Republic, it is $460.
The various costs and inefficiencies deter serious investments or job creation.
Since the quake, complaints have mounted. Prospective investors struggle with congestion. Increased costs include a $300 fee that port operators now charge to cover the leasing of barges for offloading cargo.
Soon after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti's capital and nearby cities, the country was forced to turn to the Dominican Republic to truck in life-saving aid.
With a government-estimated 300,000 dead, an equal number injured and surgeons forced to sterilized instruments with vodka, the port became critical to saving lives.
But the already unstable northern pier had crumbled into 1,476 feet of rubble under the sea, and the southern pier was badly damaged. Long-neglected provincial ports were either too small to handle the flood of containers, or the roads connecting them with the broken capital were themselves broken.
The international airport was also damaged, diverting flights.
With the U.S. military commander pressuring to get the main seaport operational, the southern pier was repaired and the decision was made to lease two 100- by 400-foot floating barges from Jacksonville-based Crowley Maritime Corp. As the U.S. military's $22 million contract with Crowley came to an end on April 15, the maritime agents said they took over the contract at the request of the port authority.