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Haiti: A year after the quake, waiting to rebuild

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The man's body lay face down, his white dress shirt shining like wax in the sun, as he was unearthed in the ruins of a Port-au-Prince restaurant a year after the earthquake.

The bodies still being found in the rubble are a sign of how far Haiti has to go to recover from a disaster that left the capital in ruins and is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people.

As the dust was still settling from the Jan. 12, 2010, disaster, volunteers and hundreds of aid groups flocked in with food, water and first aid that saved countless lives. But the effort to rebuild has been dwarfed by the size of the tragedy, the extent of the need and, perhaps most fatally, the lack of Haitian and international leadership and of coordination of more than 10,000 nongovernmental organizations.

President Rene Preval has been seen by most Haitians as ineffective at best, and many observers have criticized him for not spearheading a coherent reconstruction or making the hard policy decisions needed to rebuild.

Preval and Haitian officials stress that their government was weak and underfunded to begin with, then devastated, and never really recovered from the earthquake. Ministries were relocated but could not replace vast numbers of staff killed in the quake or material lost in the destruction.

Advocacy groups also blame much of the Haitian government's weakness on an international community that is not keeping its pledge of support.

"The international community has not done enough to support good governance and effective leadership in Haiti," the aid group Oxfam said in a recent report. "Aid agencies continue to bypass local and national authorities in the delivery of assistance, while donors are not coordinating their actions or adequately consulting the Haitian people."

Eri Pierre, Haiti's representative to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, said, "The problem is that at a certain point the international community gave the impression they could solve the problem quickly. … I think there was an excess of optimism."

Street markets were soon up and running after the quake, and Port-au-Prince's traffic is worse than ever. On Tuesday, Preval, his wife and other officials placed flowers at symbolic black crosses marking a mass grave outside Port-au-Prince where hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims were buried.

But from the barren hillside, the destruction is clearly visible. The slogan "build back better," touted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and others even before the quake, remains an unfulfilled promise.

Less than 5 percent of debris has been cleared, leaving enough to fill dump trucks parked bumper to bumper halfway around the world. About a million people remain homeless and neighborhood-sized homeless camps look like permanent shantytowns on the fields and plazas of the capital. A cholera epidemic erupted outside the earthquake zone that has killed more than 3,600 people, and an electoral crisis between Preval's ruling party and its rivals threatens to break an increasingly fragile political stability.

Progress has been slow, starting with the omnipresent rubble.

Construction of new housing has barely begun. The core underlying issue of sorting out Haiti's broken system of land ownership, where several people hold claim to the same plot of land, has not even been addressed. Without sorting out land ownership, there is nowhere to build.

Meanwhile, only 15 percent of needed temporary shelters have been built, with few permanent water and sanitation facilities.

Owners of small construction materials businesses, such as Justin Premier, 43, should be raking in money. But most people in his neighborhood are just buying plywood to reinforce their tarps.

"It's going to take a lot of time for us to come back where we were before," Premier said.

Haiti: A year after the quake, waiting to rebuild 01/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:55pm]
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