Haiti confronts a monumental disposal problem


When a city crashes to the ground, how do you dispose of it?

Six weeks after an earthquake reduced Port-au-Prince to the ruins of a lost war, Haitian and foreign officials who hope to build a new capital first have to confront the wreckage of the old one.

The capital is a panorama of rubble: collapsed and half-fallen stores, banks, apartment buildings and homes, hillsides covered by broken shacks that fell like dominoes. Gnarled steel rebar lies all over in massive tangles, like a thousand Medusas.

The amount of debris is stunning. Officials estimate they will have to clean up as much as 25 million cubic yards of material -- enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome five times over. By comparison, detritus from the destroyed World Trade Center amounted to about 1 million cubic yards.

Haiti’s leaders, working with officials from the United Nations and United States, last week approved a rubble-disposal plan that is expected to take at least two years to complete.

The initial phase focuses on clearing debris from drainage ditches and around the most congested encampments in order to help shift people away from areas prone to flooding before spring rains arrive at the end of March.

“We don’t have the luxury of stepping back and doing this in a relaxed way,” said Mike Byrne, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official who co-chairs a multilateral committee on debris here.

The longer-term cleanup will involve an armada of front loaders, excavators and trucks. Haitian President Rene Preval has said the effort will require 1,000 dump trucks for 1,000 days -- a characterization that U.S. planners say is fairly accurate.

“We’re going to have to go 24-7 on this,” said Byrne, who was the government’s point man in the World Trade Center cleanup.

Haitian officials have identified a handful of possible disposal sites, which are to include facilities for hazardous materials, separating refuse and crushing the concrete chunks. Early assessments indicate that 90% of the debris can be recycled into road-building material, melted or put to other uses, Byrne said.

In some places, residents in yellow or blue T-shirts have begun clearing channels and removing debris as part of a $5-a-day job program to help stricken Haitians with no livelihoods.

Many Haitians are attacking the broken mounds on their own. Impatient homeowners and businesspeople with means have hired digging machines and workers to clear their properties. Concrete debris has been dumped hurriedly along the side of one of the main roads leaving the city.

Destitute Haitians have sought to turn rubble into opportunity. The destruction has spawned a new scavenging specialty in a city where jobs were already scarce. Around the city, residents clamber over the chalky piles with undersized hammers, shovels, hacksaws and, most often, bare hands.

“Everybody has to figure out a way to survive until things get back in place,” said Demarseilles Nelson, who after half a day of scavenging with bare hands had piled his wheelbarrow with a 3-foot-high stack of metal scraps. His yield included a manual typewriter that appeared to date to the days of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the 1960s-era dictator.

Impromptu scrap markets have sprung up where enterprising young men with homemade scales buy steel rebar that they drag away by hand or in shabby wheelbarrows.

In one forlorn corner of the city, amid dust and truck exhaust, 16-year-old Nahem Inora was offering 4 cents a pound for the metal. He said he planned to resell it to big-time traders for about 7 cents a pound. He had arrived that morning with $20 and had burned through half of it within hours.

“I would be more successful if I had more money to buy steel,” Inora said. Waiting to sell their treasure were two boys who had carried and dragged a grimy sack loaded with 2-foot lengths of rebar.

The piles of rubble entomb an unknown number of dead -- a reality that will require sensitivity when it comes to clearing. That could mean digging by hand in places where bodies are believed buried.

Also beneath the rubble are valuables that may never be recovered.

Stacy Dauphin stood the other day on the ruins of a five-story apartment building where she used to live. Three family members died there during the quake; Dauphin’s leg was pinned, but she was able to free herself.

She had hired two men with a shovel to dig in the broken concrete and steel to search for her passport and other identification papers. Without the documents, Dauphin said, she was unable to collect money transferred from abroad or to travel for her clothes-buying business.

But after several hours, the sea of rubble had not yielded her belongings. Dauphin was calling it quits.

“They’re never going to find it,” she said, defeated. “But I had to try.”