The displacement of an estimated one million Haitians, by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that decimated their country on Jan. 12, will require a monumental rebuilding effort that, so far, is neither completely organized nor neatly funded.

The effort to get Haitian citizens into transitional shelters quickly is made urgent by Haiti’s impending rainy and hurricane seasons. But in a country that has neither building codes nor, for that matter, zoning enforcement; and where basic necessities such as food, electricity and water remain scarce, the reconstruction of Haiti’s now-flattened capital Port-Au-Prince is anything but a certainty.

Questions about what kinds of structures should be built, who will build them, and who pays for that rebuilding remain unanswerable, and perhaps even quixotic when poverty and governmental dysfunction define Haiti’s current environment. “This isn’t an issue of rebuilding Haiti [because] what was there before the earthquake was terrible,” says an executive who works for one of the largest American home building companies but requested not to be identified for this story. 

The earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince was felt 40 kilometers north in the town of Caberet, where some 1,600 homes were destroyed or damaged. However, only two of the 200 homes built there under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity International incurred damage, and one of those because of soil displacement, according to Mario Flores, Habitat’s director of disaster response-field operations.

Habitat has been active in Haiti for 26 years, and Flores and three other people from Habitat’s Latin American office were on the ground assessing the catastrophe within 48 hours of the earthquake hitting that country. “It was chaos,” recalls Flores, who notes that schools and hospitals—presumed to be better-built structures—“collapsed by the dozens,” with students and patients under them.

The quake destroyed between 200,000 and 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses in Haiti. Gerard-Emile Brun, a member of a commission established by Haiti’s President Rene Prevel to assess the damage, thinks three-quarters of Port-au-Prince’s buildings will need to be razed. He also stated that it would take $5 billion and 15 years “to get a decent Port-au-Prince back,” estimates that seem conservative to other observers.

Nevertheless, Flores says many ideas are percolating about how to rebuild the country. Right now, the focus is getting Haiti’s citizens out from under tents and tarpaulins and into sturdier temporary shelter before the weather gets nastier. Habitat has a number of proposals on the table, including building wood-framed structures with metal roofing that are wrapped with plastic sheathing. In one scenario, the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF) would do the site preparation for these shelters, Habitat would lay the foundations, and the humanitarian aid group World Vision would handle the exterior construction. Habitat’s goal, says Flores, is to get 10,000 of these dwellings up within six months.

Habitat has also proposed a design for a “core” house that would have a covered area of 54 square meters (581 square feet) with a permanent foundation, a reinforced concrete exterior structure and a complete sanitary unit. Habitat would complete half of the house “just to get people under a roof,” and the owners could finish it as they could afford it.

Habitat is part of a “shelter cluster,” comprised of about 80 organizations that are working on rebuilding Haiti. There are myriad other clusters—such as those for health, logistics, security, water, and sanitation—that are operating somewhat autonomously and in something of a governmental vacuum. Haiti’s elected officials are struggling to reassert their authority, while elements of that government are being managed by the United Nations. The United States has been running the airport and water ports, and with Canada has been providing security forces.

Under these circumstances, Flores wonders whether Haiti’s government will ever be capable of tackling tougher land-use and construction issues in ways that lead to “decongesting” Port-au-Prince and building safer houses. Ideally, Flores advocates building to international and seismic codes that are proved successful in countries such as Mexico and Costa Rica that have been hit by earthquakes. However, he concedes that building to code in a disaster zone invariably makes houses more expensive, and the value of those added costs could be a difficult concept to sell to impoverished and desperate people.

Habitat has a 30-person team in Haiti, and Flores is returning to that country Monday for two weeks, during which he hopes to firm up partnerships with other non-governmental organizations, and “refine our product for shelter intervention” in terms of drawings, specs, bills of quantities, and scheduling.

So far, the involvement of other American home builders and suppliers in Haiti’s disaster relief effort has been through fundraising and materials. Weyerhaeuser last month said it would donate up to $250,000 in construction products for the immediate effort to build temporary shelter, and provide technical assistance in the future. Oldcastle is matching its employees’ donations to CHF up to a total of $250,000. Centex and several other builders have set up links on their Web sites to the American Red Cross and other relief groups. And Lennar has pledged more than $1 million to match donations raised by Athletes Relief Fund For Haiti, which was created by the former Miami Heat basketball star Alonzo Mourning.

Taylor Morrison, the Arizona-based builder, has been conducting what its vice president of human resources Katy Owen calls an “internal campaign” that has included setting up an online donation site with the Red Cross, and putting donations jars in each of its divisional and sales offices. The builder’s Canadian division, Monarch, has identified three or four organizations for contributions and will match donations made to each by its team and customers. The builder’s Austin division also recently donated to Haiti relief a $5,000 award it received from Taylor Morrison’s corporate office for its community service work last year. And Taylor Morrison's Northern California office has been raising money for Haiti in conjunction with a half-marathon that its associates will run in May.

Owen says Taylor Morrison as even looked into getting involved in the reconstruction effort in some capacity. “Once things start settling down, we can start processing requests," she says.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

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