Trainees Write of Lack of Rubble Removal in Post-Earthquake Haiti

Jul 192011

A July 15 story in Haiti's Nouvelliste newspaper (in French) explores a lack of rubble removal in the country following the January 12, 2010 earthquake. The story focuses on Haiti Recovery Group (HRG), an outfit tasked to remove debris, which is housed in a state-of-the-art facility that stands in sharp contrast to its surroundings.

This article was published in collaboration with Knight International Journalism Kathie Klarreich as part of a pilot project of investigative journalism in collaboration with the Association of Haitian Media (ANMH). Klarreich has been working for the last few months with journalists from the Nouvelliste on stories of reconstruction following the earthquake.

English translation:

Lots of Equipment, Not Much Removal

What percentage of the millions of cubic meters of rubble from Haiti’s January 12, 2010 earthquake still litter the streets a year and a half later – 30, 40, 50%? It’s difficult to know when the government lacks a global plan and the capital is still in ruins.

Kitchen, gym, conference room, water treatment center, containers transformed into cozy air-conditioned apartments – this is what Haiti Recovery Group calls home. Installed on the grounds of the old national bottling company following Haiti’s January 12, 2010 earthquake, HRG was born out of a marriage when US based AshBritt Environment joined forces with Haiti’s Group GB. HRG’s state of the art facility stands in sharp contrast to its surroundings – the western hemisphere’s largest slum, Cite Soleil, on one side and the ruins of a once vibrant downtown on the other.

Specializing in construction, HRG has a remarkable collection of heavy equipment, tractors, loaders - a $25 million investment. Michael Wyrick, vice president of business development, decries the fact that HRG has had less than a dozen contracts since its conception. The largest, for $10 million, was signed with the Prime Minister’s office without a bid last year, when it removed more than 270,000 cubic meters of rubble from the downtown area.

Since April, most of HRGs equipment sits as idle as the large chunks of cement which litter the capital. The 200 containers they shipped are rusting on dusty terrain within their fenced compound. “We had planned to make them available for the non-governmental agencies (NGOs) involved in the Cash for Work project,” Wyrick said, “for which we would receive $200 each. But dozens of them have never even been used.” Whether its for lack of interest or finance, Wyrick couldn’t say for sure.

What is sure, however, is that despite the slow progress of rubble removal, there has been some improvement. Certain areas, such as Nazon in the capital’s metropolitan area, is nearly rubble free. Actors in rubble removal agree much more could, and should have been done over the last year and a half. They also agree that the lack of a global plan has been the biggest impediment, because without one it’s been difficult to coordinate a viable pickup strategy.

“It’s only now that we’re really working on a plan,” said Engineer Alfred Piard, director of the Ministry of Public Works and Communication (MTPTC). “Fortunately, everyone seems to now understand that we have to change strategy.

HRG’s situation is a classic example of what happens when there is no coordination – idle material rotting just yards from rubble clogs streets.

Lack of a global plan also left the various actors involved guessing on how much rubble needed to be removed. The initial guesstimate following the quake of 20 million cubic meters of debris quickly began to decrease when more sophisticated apparatus, including satellite imaging, was employed. Although most seem

The current lame duck Minister of Public Works and Communication, Jacques Gabriel, claims that between 1.5 and 2 million cubic meters of rubble have already been lifted, where as the government agency National Center of Equipment (CNE) claims that - thanks to its 240 trucks - more than twice that amount has been removed. “From January 13 to December 15, 2010, CNE has removed 5,336,940 cubic meters,” CNE wrote in a report it shared with Le Nouvelliste.

Engineer Piard claims that altogether the various state entities “have removed one million cubic meters,” as of May 2011 but that 7-8 million cubic meters remain. CHF International, a USAID funded NGO which has been active in rubble removal, claims that of June 2011 it has lifted 481,854.43 cubic meters.

Florence Liautaud, head of communications for the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC), said it’s difficult to be precise when talking about rubble removal. “We work with several partners,” she said, emphasizing that IHRC’s role is limited to coordinating the funding of humanitarian aid projects, not their execution. Although IHRC’s goal was to remove 40% of the estimated 10 million cubic meters of rubble by the end of its mandate this October, Liautaud admits it will probably fall short.

Securing funding for rubble removal is a challenge - it’s not as sexy as soliciting funds for housing, for example. “None of the funders has given us enough,” said Carleene H. Dei, director of Haiti’s United States Agency for International Development. USAID has two of IHRC’s three major rubble removal contracts; one for 120,000 cubic meters at a cost of $3.9 million, another for 625,000 cubic meters. Some 600,000 employees of Cash for Work, a $5/day employment program instituted after the quake, participated in some of the removal. Dei said that of tons lifted, much of it is credited to the 600,000 people employed as part of the Cash For Work program.

Private companies removing rubble are paid by the cubic meter. The price varies from company to company. Foreign companies have been known to receive up to $70/per cubic meters, while Haitian companies on average receive between $25-30.

Several sources verified that HRG was paid between $35-37 on average for each cubic meter. According to CHF Director Alberto Wilde, their standard price is $30. CHF subcontracts exclusively with Haitian companies.

“In the beginning it was impossible for Haitian companies to get contracts,” said Joel Bonnefil, owner of the local company Haytian Tractor. “CHF helped us understand the procedures. Today we can now compete in the bidding process, even if there aren’t that many offers available.”

Obviously it’s less expensive to use a public company, where per cubic meter price wars are less of an issue. Still, when the Minister of Public Works recently submitted a project to remove one million cubic meters for 175,000,000 gourdes in six months (40 gourdes/$1), the ICRH rejected it. Le Nouvelliste was unable to confirm why.

Meanwhile in a document released last December, IHRC advocated three different approaches to removing rubble, with an average cost of $35-37 per cubic meter The first approach, for $350 million, targeted removal by neighborhood. This approach would take ten contracts working simultaneously for four years and cost $35/cubic meter. The second approach, for a total of $400 million, also over a four-year period at a cost of $40/cubic meter would be executed by geographic zones. The third approach would basically combine the two, cost $40/cubic meter and take between 24-30 months. In all three cases, the work would be continuous, seven days a week.

MTTPC Minister Jacques Gabriel and Wyrick of HRG agree that removal could take at least two years. Former President René Préval had said with 1000 trucks working round the clock it would take at least three.

But remove the rubble where? The city dump at Trutier is still the only place where it is being deposited. “Where to put the debris causes me a great deal of anxiety,” said Piard of the Public Works Ministry. Certain experts, including those from the United Nations, have been studying this issue but have not come up with a viable site. Companies dumping debris in Trutier have reconciled themselves to paying bribes in order to empty their trucks.

There are also legal concerns for rubble removal. To knock down a house that has been marked red (one of three color codes determined by a corps of engineers following the quake), a company needs a signed agreement with the home owner. This can take time and cause delays. Even if the company tracks down proprietors, owners may demand money before they agree to have their home destroyed. This despite the fact that it costs them nothing.

The number one problem for Haytian tractor is not locating the owner but rather the danger presented by scavengers trying to salvage whatever material they can when the home is about to be, or is the process of, being destroyed. “There are people who invade the site for the scraps of metal when we start our work,” Bonnefil said, “and that slows us down.’

One, two, three years – much depends on the capacity of the government and the NGO community to elaborate their global plan. Meanwhile the rubble sits, an eyesore, an impediment to progress, and a source of scavenging for those who are still homeless.