Ignoring pleas, some impatient Haitians start to rebuild

Families pool labor, resources to create homes

Sergeant Mike Johnson from Fort Bragg, N.C., operated a bulldozer during the cleanup effort in downtown Port-au-Prince. Haiti now has fewer than 5,000 donated tents. Sergeant Mike Johnson from Fort Bragg, N.C., operated a bulldozer during the cleanup effort in downtown Port-au-Prince. Haiti now has fewer than 5,000 donated tents. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Paisley Dodds
Associated Press / January 30, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Defying pleas to wait for Haiti’s reconstruction, families lugged heavy bundles of wood and tin up steep hillsides yesterday to do the unthinkable: build new homes on top of old ones devastated in the earthquake.

The defiance reflects growing anger and frustration among Haitians who complain that their leaders - and any rebuilding plans - are absent more than two weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in the capital.

Few tents have been supplied, rubble remains strewn in many streets, and signs begging for help in English - not Haitian Creole - dot nearly every street corner in Port-au-Prince.

It could take another month to get the 200,000 tents needed for Haiti’s homeless, said Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the culture and communications minister.

Haiti now has fewer than 5,000 donated tents

Meanwhile, the United States has suspended its medical evacuations of critically injured quake victims until a dispute over who will pay for their care is settled, military officials said yesterday. The flights, usually C-130s carrying Haitians with spinal cord injuries, burns, and other serious wounds, ended Wednesday, after Governor Charlie Crist of Florida formally asked the federal government to shoulder some of the cost of their care. It was not clear yesterday who exactly was responsible for the interruption of flights, or the chain of events that led to the decision.

In the concrete slum of Canape Vert, an area devastated by the quake, dozens of people were pooling their labor and getting on with rebuilding.

“I have 44 years’ worth of memories in this house,’’ said Noel Marie Jose, 44, whose family was reinforcing crumbling walls with tin and wood.

“I got married here. I met my husband here. My mother braided my hair there where these walls used to stand,’’ Jose said. “Even if it’s unsafe, I can’t imagine leaving. Even if the government helps, it will come too late. This is how it is in Haiti.’’

Surrounding her, concrete homes were either crushed or had toppled down a hill. Jose and other families said they were worried both about the coming rainy season and fears they may lose their plots after demolitions because they either lack clear title or the government does not want them to rebuild on land it considers unsafe.

Reconstruction, resettlement, and land titles are all priorities of the government of President Rene Preval, but so far in name only. The government has been nearly paralyzed by the quake - its own infrastructure, including the National Palace, was destroyed, and so far it has been limited to appeals for foreign aid and meetings with foreign donors that have yet to produce detailed plans for the emergencies it confronts.

Its first priority is moving people from areas prone to more earthquakes and landslides into tent cities that have sanitation and security but have yet to be built. Preval has engaged in dozens of meetings with potential outside contractors to discuss debris removal, sanitation, and other long-term needs. Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary of the Organization of American States, has offered help in creating a new Haitian land registry - a process that could take months if not years because countless government records were destroyed in the quake.

Haitians ardently defend their property rights. If a family has occupied land for more than 10 years, they gain ownership without a deed. For some families, small homes have been passed on through the generations.

Many have tired of living in tents improvised from tarps, sheets, and bedspreads, opting to rebuild their homes rather than find new plots.

Lassegue said such rebuilding wouldn’t be tolerated - and that the government wants to develop and implement a comprehensive reconstruction plan that might feature building codes, an anomaly in this impoverished nation.

Paul Louis, a 45-year-old porter, has started a business buying wood from scavengers and selling it on the street. He purchased a cracked and worn 1-by-8-foot board for about $2 and was selling it yesterday for $3.

Material from The New York Times was included in this report.