Weary of Debris, Haiti Finally Sees Some Vanish

By DEBORAH SONTAG for the New York Times . . .

Wearing a Nike visor, sunglasses, a crisp linen shirt and pressed jeans, Randal Perkins of Pompano Beach, Fla., watched with satisfaction as his $400,000 hydraulic excavator clawed into a towering pile of concrete chunks in the shattered heart of this city.

“This is what the people have been waiting for,” Mr. Perkins declared in his booming voice, sweeping his arm to take in a crowd of bystanders mesmerized for hours by the demolition and removal of a collapsed funeral home.

Mr. Perkins had been waiting, too, with increasing impatience, for the cleanup of Haiti to begin. Chief executive of a Florida-based disaster recovery firm, he had made a $25 million gamble that he could capitalize on the Jan. 12 earthquake. He had partnered with a Haitian conglomerate, imported a dozen shiploads of heavy equipment and set up a state-of-the-art base camp here — but then, nothing.

It has been obvious since January that clearing the wreckage is the necessary prelude to this country’s reconstruction, physically and psychologically. But the problem was so dauntingly big and complex that the government and donors got stuck in visionary mode, planning the future while the present remained mired in rubble.

It was easier, in a way, to conceive ambitious projects that would, someday, address Haiti’s longstanding issues, like its weak educational system or its crumbling roads.

By late summer, however, the need to tackle the earthquake damage directly became so glaring that some initial steps were taken. The government tendered its very first cleanup contract to Mr. Perkins’s Haiti Recovery Group. Worth $7.5 million to $13.5 million — nobody would be more precise — the contract represented a minuscule piece of a debris removal operation expected to cost $1.2 billion.

But it was at last a start, breaking the paralysis symbolized by the teetering ruin of the destroyed national palace. “Finally, something is moving in debris,” Jessica Faieta, the United Nations Development Program’s senior country director in Haiti, said with relief.

Mr. Perkins echoed her relief. “All along I’d been thinking, ‘Somebody finally has to take the initiative and say, ‘Ready, set, go,’ ” he said. “You just pick a spot to begin and things will fall into place.”

Mr. Perkins, 46, competitive and ambitious with a loose-limbed swagger, flew to Haiti within days of the earthquake to start staking his claim. He knows that companies like his are sometimes seen as disaster vultures but dismisses the criticism.

“People always say you make money off other people’s misery,” Mr. Perkins said. “But, listen, somebody’s got to do the work.”

He did not know the headaches that lay ahead.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the American military and several American contractors were busy clearing roads and setting up logistical support for the Haitian government and international groups. One of Mr. Perkins’s chief competitors — the DRC Group of Alabama — already had an office in Haiti and started right in with the grisly task of recovering bodies.

After that initial burst of activity, though, the cleanup slowed to a crawl. International officials blamed the Haitian government for failing to take charge and create a master plan for debris removal and resettlement. Haitian officials, however, maintain that international donors themselves were slow to make rubble a priority.

“What is happening now could have happened in March if there had not been a laxity on the part of the international community,” said one senior official in the planning ministry, who asked that he not be identified for what he called political reasons. “As you know, we ourselves don’t have the means.”

Chuck Prieur, senior vice president of DRC-Haiti, said that rubble removal was never “sexy” to donors. “Nobody wants to do cleanup,” he said. “Everybody likes to do shiny stuff you can put your name on.”

Shortly after the earthquake, Mr. Prieur said, he sketched out a debris plan and calculated that the cleanup could, theoretically, be done in nine months. “But I knew that nine months could be nine years if the forces weren’t mobilized,” he said.

Ms. Faieta said that the search for a perfect approach — taking into account, say, environmental concerns and land ownership issues — had proved “paralyzing” but added that the contractors had a different vantage point.

“They are entrepreneurs, there to remove rubble and remove it fast,” she said.

Always a self-starter, Mr. Perkins ended up in the disaster recovery business by being in the right place at the right time. The son of a prison guard and a probation officer, a college dropout who had gotten married at 19, he was a landscape contractor in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992.

A large engineering company needed bucket trucks; he had bucket trucks. AshBritt Inc., named after his daughters Ashley and Brittany, was born.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corp of Engineers gave AshBritt what Mr. Perkins said ultimately amounted to a $900 million contract to clean up debris. Mr. Perkins said AshBritt held hundreds of “prepositioned” federal, state and municipal contracts for disaster recovery, but Haiti’s earthquake was its first international disaster.

Soon after the earthquake, Mr. Perkins made the rounds, visiting the ambassador to the United States, Haitian ministers and the country’s president. He also met with the GB Group, a leading Haitian conglomerate.

Where AshBritt had disaster recovery experience, GB had a distribution network, relationships with local suppliers and political connections.

They formed the Haiti Recovery Group. In early spring Mr. Perkins started building a deluxe base camp inside GB’s 35-acre industrial complex, outfitting shipping containers with air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs, a fully equipped gym and a cafeteria.

“We weren’t assured of anything,” Mr. Perkins said. “The only thing we could control was setting up a first-class operation and bringing over the equipment we needed.”

When rubble removal finally became an urgent priority late this summer, only baby steps were taken.

At its September meeting, Haiti’s reconstruction commission, led by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton, approved a $17 million United Nations Development Program plan to clean up six neighborhoods — an important project but only a small piece of the $1 billion in reconstruction projects approved to date.

At the same time, the Haitian government set itself a goal to clean up the downtown area — where government offices will be rebuilt — by late November, when presidential elections are scheduled.

Major cleanup and rebuilding is not expected to happen until next year, frustrating contractors like Mr. Prieur, although his firm does have work, building shelters and a residential camp for the United Nations.

“I’m here, so I’d love to get going, and my American greed says I’d love to have everything given to me,” Mr. Prieur said. His company’s competitor, Mr. Perkins’s firm, got the first major cleanup contract because it had “the capacity,” Michel Content of the planning ministry said.

The government is paying $32.50 to $58 a cubic yard for debris removal. That is considerably more than the American government paid contractors after Hurricane Katrina.

But the work in Haiti, contractors say, is tougher: trucks can haul fewer loads a day because of bad roads; fuel costs are higher; buildings have to be demolished. On the other hand, labor costs are far lower. The Haitians Mr. Perkins has hired and trained — close to 100, he said — are getting $1,000 a month, a substantial wage in Haiti, though much less than the $450 to $500 a day he is paying American machine operators here.

The government recently granted a second contract to a Haitian company, reportedly paying less. Both contracts were no-bid, Mr. Content said, because of the need for speed.

Once Mr. Perkins’s Haiti Recovery Group got the go-ahead, HRG trucks were everywhere downtown. Collapsed buildings, their remains putrefying with oversize rats crawling through the rubble, are now spray-painted with a red “HRG — O.K.” when they are cleared for removal.

Crowds gather to watch the demolitions, partly because they are big, noisy spectacles and partly because the glistening new dump trucks always leave something salvageable behind.

“It’s beautiful,” Ernst Saint Albor, 36, said as he leaned on his bicycle watching one building come down. “It looks like destruction, but it’s progress. We cannot bear to see these collapsed buildings any longer. Be gone with them.”

For the original article go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/18/world/americas/18haiti.html?ref=science

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