Haiti Seeks A Home For An Endless Sea Of Debris

Workers remove rubble from a destroyed school in Port-Au-Prince. i i

hide captionWorkers remove rubble from a destroyed school in Port-Au-Prince in early March. Haitians now must find a way to dispose of the estimated 25 million cubic yards of debris left in the wake of the powerful earthquake that struck the country in January.

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images
Workers remove rubble from a destroyed school in Port-Au-Prince.

Workers remove rubble from a destroyed school in Port-Au-Prince in early March. Haitians now must find a way to dispose of the estimated 25 million cubic yards of debris left in the wake of the powerful earthquake that struck the country in January.

Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

One of the biggest and most urgent problems facing Haiti is what to do with the tons and tons of rubble from fallen homes, offices and other buildings left after the massive January earthquake.

Haiti will have to contend with an estimated 25 million cubic yards of debris. In comparison, New York City had 1 million cubic yards of waste to deal with after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Haitian government is still struggling to find safe sites to dump all the debris, even as more structures are slated for demolition.

Haitian President Rene Preval likes to say it will take a thousand dump trucks a thousand days to get all the debris off the streets of Port-au-Prince, the country's capital.

Gary Marcel, one of those enlisted in that Herculean task, says he fills his truck with debris from the devastated downtown streets six to seven times a day. Then, he queues up with dozens of other trucks dumping their loads at Terminal Varreux, a private port on the bay of Port-au-Prince.

Since the quake hit more than two months ago, all the dumping has added nearly 30 yards to the length of the port's jetty.

It's been difficult to find suitable sites to put all the debris. The densely populated capital has little open space, and driving to locations far outside Port-au-Prince wouldn't be very efficient.

Managing The Debris

So in the meantime, dumping at the water's edge and in the nearby marshlands has been going on with little oversight and few questions asked.

Mike Byrne, who works for the U.S. Agency for International Development, says concerns about dumping at the port are now being addressed. "There is an environmentally sound way to do that, and that's the way that we're going to do it. It's going to take us a little while to get that in place — and so that it's done the right way — but we are confident that we'll be able to make it work," Byrne says.

In fact, USAID just signed a $3.5 million contract with a South Florida firm to manage the debris site.

Youri Mevs, whose company is a co-owner of Terminal Varreux, says in the chaotic weeks after the earthquake, she was glad to help out. But since then, she says, she has not been consulted about dumping on her land and was not informed about the USAID contract.

"We found out after the agreement was made and we found out as the company that was afforded the contract moved onto the premises," she says.

Mevs says her company has just signed its own agreement with another company, Miami-based Sante Holding Corp., to redevelop the private port. She says the government does not need a protracted legal battle that could harm Haiti's image at a time when it is asking foreign donors to fund the country's reconstruction.

"They would hate for this to stain the movement or damage it," Mevs says.

The need for secure sites to dispose of debris will only get more urgent as anxious homeowners and businesspersons start demolishing their badly damaged property.

U.N. and U.S. engineers have just launched a program to help landowners determine whether their structures are safe enough to inhabit, and they are training Haitian inspectors to make that determination.

Assessing The Damage

On a street in the Turgeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, engineers pore over a map of the area and try to decide which structures to assess. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Blackwell, who is overseeing the project, says he is surprised by the preliminary inspection of buildings in the area. So far, they have found that nearly half of them are structurally sound.

"Initially when you drive through, just because you're seeing so much debris mixed in, it appears as though the damage would be a much higher percent," he says.

But in fact, Blackwell says, out of the 900 buildings they had inspected, 44 percent received a green light.

The engineers will give the structure a yellow tag if work is needed and a red tag if the building is unsafe.

As the team heads onto the sprawling campus of a nearby private university, the engineers head for the basement of the school's three-story main building. One of them focuses in on the support columns. All have huge, X-shaped cracks in them.

"Red, red, red," he shouts out — the huge building will get a red tag and will need to be totally demolished.

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