Haiti's Quake, One Year Later: It's the Rubble, Stupid!

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Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

A woman stands beside her house in the Fort National neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. One year after the devastating January 2010 earthquake, the city remains littered with rubble

Each day, Feralia François trudges from her squalid Port-au-Prince tent camp to the mountain of stony debris that was once her middle-class neighborhood of Delmas. The earthquake that devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, reduced her house to a shell and claimed her police officer son, Ali, among the 230,000 it killed. A year later, the 63-year-old matriarch still comes to stand guard against people dumping garbage on the rubble that holds her neighbors' corpses deep inside its jaws of concrete and rebar, which no one — not the government, the international community or the hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Haiti — seems interested in removing. Picking at the flotsam of her entombed friends' lives, a refrigerator, pages of a child's multiplication tables, François feels that time stopped for her when it did for them. "Life hasn't progressed at all since the earthquake," she murmurs. Says a neighbor, Georgina Jean, 26: "For us, every morning when we wake up and see this, it's still Jan. 12, 2010."

Nearby, however, in the Ravine Pintade bidonville, or slum, Emma Labrousse is singing. With an $8 million grant from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, two American NGOs — Cooperative Housing Foundation International (CHF) and Project Concern International — have helped connect Ravine Pintade to running water, set up a health clinic, installed latrines and built a daycare center. Most important, they've rented heavy machinery and employed local workers to extract the tons of rubble choking the bidonville's entrances and arteries. Kids are playing soccer again, and residents can expect sturdy, temporary housing, or "t-shelters," in the coming months. "We can move around, we feel like the country is turning around," says Labrousse, 63, who lost a teenage daughter to the quake but is belting out hymns today inside her tiny local church. "We're living again."

Unfortunately, on the first anniversary of one of history's worst natural disasters, François' despair is still vastly more common among Haitians than Labrousse's optimism. The quake drew a remarkable emergency response from the international community. It also prompted ambitious plans to reconstruct, even reinvent, the hemisphere's poorest nation — to "build it back better," as the mantra went. "But the recovery process really hasn't begun yet," argues Leslie Voltaire, an urban architect and presidential candidate. Two-thirds of the 1.5 million Haitians left homeless by the quake still live in tents, and fewer than half the 45,000 t-shelters that the U.N. and other housing organizations had hoped to build by now have been erected.

The biggest impediment to the reconstruction is the most basic. "Nothing can really be done," Voltaire notes, "until the rubble is removed." And only 5% of the up to 22 million cubic yards of heavy debris has been tackled. While it took more than two years to clear less than half that amount of rubble from the Indonesian province of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, at the current rate of removal, it could take another 19 years to clear Haiti.

To its credit, Washington has so far spent $100 million on hauling debris, with some of the money coming from the $1.15 billion the U.S. pledged to Haitian recovery last March. "Rubble removal," says Cheryl Mills, chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "is endemic to the success of any infrastructure project." Gabriel Verret, executive director of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, insists that the smaller rubble work that his agency and NGOs like CHF have undertaken "must be duplicated on a massive scale" with massive contractors.

But that requires massive funding, and little of the $9 billion that other donor nations pledged last year — only 10% of which has materialized — is earmarked for backhoes, earth movers and dump trucks. One reason, say disaster experts, is that rubble removal isn't sexy. Governments and NGOs want to give taxpayers and donors the satisfaction of building new schools or supplying prosthetic limbs. Hauling rocks just doesn't do it.

Another obstacle is the sheer enormity of the concrete deluge: almost all of Port-au-Prince, a hyper-densely populated capital with criminally lax building codes, was reduced to gravel. Worse, the city's jagged topography (San Francisco can seem flat by comparison) and its chaotic maze of narrow byways makes maneuvering large equipment an ordeal. Liability concerns are a further restraint: rubble removal often involves demolition and the risk of sending a condemned structure crashing onto other properties. Then there's the problem of where to dump it. Right now, the only available site for Port-au-Prince rubble sits alongside one of the city's most troubled slums, Cité Soleil — a spectacle that does little for the "build it back better" campaign.

The challenges are forcing innovation. Ann Lee, program director for CHF in Haiti, is promoting the use of conveyors, hillside chutes and cranes. She also suggests that the cash-for-work programs that employ Haitians to remove rubble consider basing wages on output as well as hours. Residents of the Port-au-Prince district of Nazon, for example, tell TIME they want foreign contractors, because locals too often treat the cash-for-work effort as a laid-back political-patronage deal. "There's been a lot of impressive effort by the international community," says Lee, "but we could have done a lot better. It shouldn't take a year to clear just 5% of the rubble."

The rubble delay is also symptomatic of a leadership vacuum that most Haitians blame on their all-but-AWOL President, René Préval. The Haitian government was one of the world's most corrupt and feckless even before the earthquake killed a quarter of its civil servants and destroyed most of its buildings. The U.N. suffered similar losses, including its Haiti mission boss, Hédi Annabi. "The earthquake made Port-au-Prince look like many cities in Europe after World War II, and it took them 10 years to recover," says U.S. ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten. "To expect more here is not fair to the Haitian people." Mills feels the rate of rubble removal and t-shelter construction "must be improved" but argues that, given the quake's impact on government capacity, "Haiti is relatively on pace, recovery-wise."

Many Haitians disagree, however. Voltaire suggests that precisely because the Haitian state is so ragged, the U.S. should drop its delusion that Préval and company can steer the recovery and instead "recognize that its nation-building is actually needed here." But that's hardly where Washington wants to go these days. Préval, meanwhile, couldn't even ensure a transparent presidential election to choose his successor — angry Haitians, who have had to deal with a recent cholera epidemic on top of all their other woes, are still waiting for reliable results from their Nov. 28 balloting. That's a reminder that the other rubble that needs to be removed in Haiti is centuries of misrule.

With reporting by Jessica Desvarieux / Port-au-Prince