PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In helping give birth to modern cities, disaster has been a useful, if cruel, midwife. In the months following Haiti’s massive earthquake in 2010, people hoped it might be true here, too.
There was plenty of precedent.
The Chicago fire of 1871 left one-third of the city’s population homeless. The city’s economy, however, grew faster in the year after the fire than in the year before it. The earthquake and fires that struck San Francisco in 1906 destroyed 28,000 buildings. Almost overnight, it cleared vast areas on which a healthier and more handsome city was built.
By now, though, it seems unlikely that Haiti’s capital will be similarly transformed by the earthquake that damaged or destroyed about 180,000 buildings in the metropolitan area. The best intentions and money pledged will not come close to what is needed to turn Port-au-Prince into a modern city with wider streets, bigger houses, more public space, and water and sanitation for all.
But one neighborhood, Ravine Pintade, gives a hint of what is possible on a small scale. It has been transformed.
A giant pile of rubble — bigger in volume than the Washington Monument — has been carted away. The ravine’s slopes have been stabilized with 7,900 feet of retaining walls. Nearly 8,000 feet of buried pipe carries rainwater that used to sluice through the streets. The footpaths that residents used to joke were “too narrow for a rat to get down" are now four feet wide.
More than half the community’s 900 families have a new house or had repairs done to the one they were in. Almost every new dwelling has a system for capturing rainwater for washing and bathing. People can buy potable water for a small price from five community-run kiosks. Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.
No one would call the rebuilt Ravine Pintade a model neighborhood. But it is far better than it was. More important, it is a product of Haitian planning and labor — and is what the residents wanted in almost every detail, including the not-very-good ones.
“There are a lot of people spending a great deal of time planning unrealizable actions," the project manager, Aram Khachadurian, said of the past two years of Haiti rebuilding. “The balance of planning and doing should be shifted more in the direction of doing, even now."
Khachadurian, 55, works for CHF International, a charity based in Silver Spring, Md., that was originally called the Cooperative Housing Foundation. He was previously a banker, a real estate developer and a regional planner for New York City.
Named “Katye" — the Creole word for “neighborhood" — the project was paid for with $8.5 million from the U.S. Agency for International Development. CHF and another nonprofit, San Diego-based PCI (formerly Project Concern International), were the “implementing partners."
The project employed about 55 people — only four were non-Haitians — and provided $1.4 million in direct economic stimulus to the community. The most visible change is 260 new one-story dwellings and 75 two-story ones. Steel-framed, with wood and composite walls, they are expected to last at least 25 years. Less apparent but equally important, Khachadurian said, is the “local ownership" — something many projects pay lip service to but few achieve.
“We had quite a different approach," he said. “Everybody was involved in everything."
Roughly $12.4 billion has been pledged in private and international post-earthquake aid to Haiti through this year. At least a third of that total went toward emergency relief for earthquake victims: food, water, shelter, medical care and cash.
Whether the rest of the aid would have been enough to turn Port-au-Prince into a modern city is uncertain. The reconstruction of Chicago, San Francisco and many other disaster-damaged cities was financed by economic growth, not charity. Haiti’s stagnant economy assured that was not going to happen here. But there were other reasons, as well.
Less than a quarter of recovery aid (which could pay for long-term rebuilding) went to Haiti’s government, according to an analysis by the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank. Charities, nongovernmental organizations and contractors continued to be the main conduits for help and money. That has been true for decades, thanks to the country’s legendary instability and reputation for corruption. (Since 1806, 56 presidents have served, with fewer than a dozen completing their terms.) Governance has continued to be difficult. The current president, Michel Martelly, has had two prime ministers since taking office in May 2011.
Most experts say that a well-funded, strong national government — or its equivalent, such as an occupying army — is necessary to execute projects such as repaving streets, laying water and sewer lines, and forcing changes to lot sizes.
“Because the money went to NGOs, I don’t think it was ever realistically an option" to modernize Port-au-Prince, said Vijaya Ramachandran, an economist at the Center for Global Development and co-author of the report. “NGOs don’t work at the level of rebuilding cities."