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Mark MacKinnon

How to fix Port-au-Prince Add to ...

From above, much of Port-au-Prince looks more like a great grey beach of crumbled concrete than the bustling port city of 2.8 million people that it once was and will be again. Entire city blocks have collapsed upon themselves, the streets that bisected them now filled with the rubble of people's homes and apartments. The shattered hospitals are in as much of need of help as the sick and wounded streaming toward them.

The offices of some international organizations - the people who usually help to rebuild after a disaster such as Tuesday's devastating earthquake - also were destroyed, and aid workers are among the missing and dead. There is no water or electricity, and the airport is only partly operational. Haitians may still be coming to grips with what hit them, but it's a relief worker's nightmare.

With as many as 45,000 people believed to be dead, it's hard to imagine that eventually life will return to something approaching normal in Port-au-Prince. With Haitians - angry at the slow delivery of aid - blocking the streets with piles of corpses, it seems unfathomable that the city's design and infrastructure may emerge stronger than they were in a city already rotting when the earth began to shake.

But history tells us that Port-au-Prince will rebuild and recover, at least to its previous state. Perhaps even to something better than what existed, so long as the international community's attention doesn't wander from Haiti, as it has so often in the past.

Recent precedents are encouraging. The vast majority of the 3.3 million people made homeless by the 2005 earthquake in the Kashmir area of Pakistan have left their tent cities and moved into new, tremor-resistant homes. Tourists have returned to the beaches of Thailand and Indonesia after the tsunami that swamped the region on Dec. 26, 2004. And China's response to the massive earthquake that devastated swathes of Sichuan province in May, 2008, has become a source of national pride, with new attention being paid to the ways homes and particularly schools are built there.

In Sichuan, local officials came to regard the earthquake, which left about 90,000 people dead or missing, as an opportunity to fix what they saw as flaws in the original designs of their cities.

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, the tsunami is credited with helping bring about a peace agreement that ended nearly three decades of conflict. A year later in Kashmir, aid and friendship briefly flowed across a bitterly disputed border from India into Pakistan.


None of those places is quite so troubled as grindingly poor and endemically chaotic Haiti. Aid agencies say they expect to face a host of unique challenges when rebuilding the island, including looting, violence and official corruption.

But precisely because of its problems - as well as the trio of hurricanes that lashed Haiti last year - the country also has one of the world's larger communities of resident aid workers, bolstered now by an influx of crisis veterans who know all too well how to go about putting a splintered region back together.

Organizations like the United Nations, the Red Cross and Médecins sans frontières (MSF) spent the first hours after the earthquake trying to make contact with their own missing employees and tallying up the damage done to resources on the ground. Then they set to work in a troubled country they already knew very personally.

For now, with aid money pouring in and heartbreaking images from Haiti dominating the international news, the focus is on emergency response: collecting the dead, healing the wounded and finding some kind of shelter for those who lost their homes. That will be the full-time task for the next couple of months, at least.

But the equally critical work of rebuilding the capital and the towns around it will begin just as the journalists are pulling out and donors thinking of opening their wallets for another cause.

"The reality is that this will take a long time to rebuild. This is not something that will take one or two years," says Alejandro Cedeno, a spokesman for the World Bank, which has announced a $100-million assistance package for short-term relief and dispatched a team of experts to look at the long-term needs. More than $268-million was pledged by various governments and organizations in the first 48 hours after the earthquake. The question, Mr. Cedeno says, is whether the outpouring will last as long as it takes Haiti to recover.

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