Clearing the rubble in Haiti

In January, Canwest Washington correspondent Sheldon Alberts covered the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in the cities of Port-au-Prince and Leogane. As the nation approaches the six-month anniversary of the tragedy, Alberts has returned to chart the progress and setbacks in efforts to rebuild and recover.

High in a hilltop neighbourhood above downtown Port-au-Prince, Jean Gardy and Dadi Mathurin take turns swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes into the crumbled remains of a cinder block home. They have heard rumours that the remains of two children, lost since the Jan. 12 earthquake, are buried deep underneath the pile, and every swing brings the expectation of a grisly discovery. But that is not their purpose here.

For the past 18 days, the two men have been part of a 21-person crew hired to haul rubble from the ruins. It is an onerous task and — with wages the equivalent of $5 a day — not a particularly lucrative one. It is work, nonetheless.

Cash-for-work programs have become a primary source of job creation in post-earthquake Haiti, where unemployment runs at an estimated 70 per cent. The most prominent program, created by the United Nations Development Program and USAID, has provided tens of thousands of Haitians with some form of temporary work in the past six months.

The task of removing an estimated 20 million cubic metres of rubble from 38,000 destroyed buildings, however, has proven to be overwhelming. The job starts on the hilltop, with well-muscled young men like Gardy and Mathurin doing the back-breaking work of knocking down half-fallen walls and crushing concrete blocks into bits tiny enough to fit in plastic three-gallon pails.

With every swing, Haiti’s past turns to dust.

Under different circumstances, the view from this work site would be spectacular. The panorama stretches from the once-verdant but now largely deforested mountains above Port-au-Prince to the Caribbean below. The conditions the men work under are challenging, to put it mildly — long hours in midday heat that nears 40 Celsius. There is no breeze to speak of.

Misery loves company, though, and the men have plenty of company.

A steady parade of women — many of them well past middle age — and younger boys carry the concrete-filled pails atop their heads and trudge down the narrow path from to the street 100 metres or so below. They form a disassembly line of sorts. Before reconstruction can commence, the destruction must be completed. With their loads balanced precariously, the women and boys walk carefully past darkened doorways of homes that — given the surroundings — must be of questionable stability. Yet, they are occupied.

Babies cry from inside the tiny spaces and anxious mothers peer out the doorways at inquisitive visitors. “We do this for Préval,” says one of the pail-carrying women, referring to Haitian President Rene Préval, who has championed the rubble clearing as a way to sustain the nation’s economy. The woman is not smiling when she says this, and neither are most of her co-workers. “Blanco, blanco,” — white man, white man — shouts one of the young men. He wants money from a journalist in exchange for taking his picture.

Once down the steps and slick pavements of the steep alleyway, the women and boys dump their pails into wheelbarrows lined all in a row at a street side — and another procession begins. Young men with dust masks or white bandannas pulled over their faces march further down the hill to empty their loads in a pile. “There is no other work,” says Ricardo Joseph, who is swinging a heavy hammer a few blocks away in a pile of concrete 10 metres high. He has been hired by the property’s owner — a lawyer, Joseph says — to reduce each piece of concrete to tiny pebbles. He shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders when asked how long the job will take.

Eventually, the detritus of January’s earthquake is to be hauled away to a Port-au-Prince terminal, the lone site approved by the government for dumping. Some entrepreneurs have begun concocting plans to recycle the waste material for use in new roads and other reconstruction projects. Those projects may take a while coming to fruition.

It’s a rare sight on these narrow side streets to see the type of heavy equipment that can speed the work. Bulldozers and bucket loaders are simply too big to navigate many of the roadways.

When they do, traffic snarls behind them, and anger flares. But the large machines make appearances here and there. Just up the street from the wheelbarrow crew, 32-year-old Carline Julot operates a large Caterpillar front-end loader at a near-empty lot. She dumps large buckets of cinder and tangles of steel reinforcing bar into a waiting truck. Julot has had no trouble finding work since Jan. 12 — female equipment operators can earn $150 a month — and she expects to be in demand for years to come. “There has been no improvement,” says Julot of the situation in Port-au-Prince. Like many other Haitians, she has grown somewhat cynical about aid workers who arrive in bucket brigades to assist local residents in the cleanup. If they really wanted to help, Julot says, the foreigners would arrive with bulldozers and not shovels.

She has heard predictions, from Préval and other government officials, that Port-au-Prince will be rubble free within two or three years. This is not a credible estimate, Julot says. “I don’t think it will be done. There are still so many houses that are crumbled and need to be cleared,” she says.

“Préval can say whatever he wants. But he is not the one doing the work.”

The original article can be found at

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