Haiti president: 3 years needed to clear rubble

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It will take three long years to clear the rubble left by Haiti‘s devastating earthquake, said President Rene Preval who admitted even he’s still afraid to sleep under concrete in case another quake strikes.

In a rare exclusive sit-down interview, Preval told Associated Press Television News on Monday that Haiti faces a long reconstruction process that will result in fewer people living in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“It will take 1,000 trucks moving rubble for 1,000 days, so that’s three years. And until we move out rubble, we cannot really build,” Preval said.

Sitting in the airport police station that serves as the country’s temporary government headquarters, Preval calmly laid out the difficulties of rebuilding an impoverished country amid aftershocks and the threat of more earthquakes.

He said the government has destroyed some hastily rebuilt structures in the capital, but he said that until alternative housing plans can be completed, the government’s ability to regulate reconstruction will be limited.

Asked about residents’ assertions that local corruption has interfered with the international aid effort, he replied: “It is possible that there have been irregularities.”

“However,” he said, “I should point out that the government isn’t the direct manager of most of this humanitarian assistance.”

He referred further questions to relief organizations and local and international governments engaged in food distribution.

International aid groups have taken pains to at least make Haiti’s government the titular head of the relief. But district mayor’s offices in Port-au-Prince have been put in control of some food coupon distribution, and some irregularities have been reported.

The president, whose five year term is scheduled to end next year, has rarely spoken publicly with his own people in the weeks since a magnitude-7 earthquake pummeled Haiti’s capital city on Jan. 12.

More than 200,000 people were killed. The presidential palace and his own private residence were destroyed, as were most government buildings and the headquarters of a 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force that guarantees his security.

Since then, Preval said Monday, he has been staying with friends until a “light, earthquake-proof” structure can be built to replace his home.

“Like you, I am nervous to be under cement,” he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday said his country will spend up to $12 million to build Haiti’s government a temporary base to replace official buildings damaged in the quake.

Despite Haitians’ desperate need for shelter, many abandoned houses that survived the quake still stand empty because nobody is quite sure they can withstand another quake.

At least 54 aftershocks have shuddered through Haiti‘s shattered capital since Jan. 12. They have toppled weakened buildings faster than demolition crews can get to them, sending up new clouds of choking dust. On Monday, three children were killed when a school collapsed in the northern city of Cap-Haitien. It wasn’t clear what caused the collapse, which occurred after a late-night tremor and heavy rains.

“I tried sleeping in the house for a night, but an aftershock came and I ran outside,” said Louise Lafonte, 36, who beds down with her family of five in a tent beside her seemingly intact concrete house. “I’m not going inside until the ground calms down.”

That may be awhile. Seismologists say more, damaging aftershocks are likely and there’s even a chance of another large quake following quickly after the initial catastrophe in the capital of 3 million people.

In 1751, a large quake hit the island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. About a month later, another one destroyed Port-au-Prince.

A magnitude-7.4 quake that killed more than 18,000 people in northwestern Turkey in 1999 was followed three months later by another of magnitude-7.2 only 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the initial epicenter.

“There are many other examples like that of two significant earthquakes following each other,” said Eric Calais, a geophysicist at Purdue University who said he warned the Haitian government two years ago that the country was vulnerable to a major quake.

The prospect of another quake is on the minds of planners trying to rebuild the country and on those trying to prevent more deaths.

U.N. inspectors have advised people to stay away from dozens of structures.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated at the end of January that there was a 90-percent likelihood of at least one more magnitude-5 quake in the coming month, a 15 percent likelihood of one of magnitude-6 or greater, and a 2 percent possibility of a shock as great, or bigger, than the Jan. 12 quake.


Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds and Jonathan M. Katz contributed to this report