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After Haiti’s Earthquake, Where Does All the Rubble Go?

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Artist Jean Herard Celeur found a way to reuse rubble from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake: totem pole-like creations and one-of-a-kind wall art.

For more practical purposes, Haitians are participating in a “cash-for-production” program to remove the tons of crumbled concrete and other debris left by the earthquake.

“It’s a stabilization campaign because everyone realizes it’s their last chance to remove the rubble and have a neighborhood that’s clean,” said Charles Berthony, 42, group leader of a debris removal team in the Bel Air community of Port-au-Prince.

He was working one afternoon in early January at the site of what was once a house. The nine family members living there all died in the quake.

When human remains are found in the rubble, all work ceases until local authorities and relatives can be notified, said Afke Bootsman, debris management project director with the U.N. Development Program.

“The earthquake has made the community and neighbors closer. Everybody is helping each other,” said Mathe Phamord, 22. Her house was damaged by the quake and she now lives with her sister and 4-year-old daughter Laisi next to the clean-up site.

Debris removal team in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Photos by Larisa Epatko

A steady stream of workers wearing yellow hardhats carried jagged chunks of concrete and bricks through the narrow passages between houses to giant bins in the street for pickup. Two years after the earthquake, the debris that remains is in these hard-to-reach places that backhoes can’t access and must be disposed of by hand.

The teams are paid for the amount of debris they remove in a program operated jointly by U.N. agencies and Haiti’s Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications.

It’s a switch from the “cash-for-work” system that didn’t work so well. Under that system, “you could stand around and do nothing, and still get paid,” Bootsman said.

Now, the rubble removers are more productive and there’s even competition among the teams, said Berthony.

The workers are paid by the cubic meter of debris, which averages about $9 per day. Most Haitians live on less than $2 a day.

The removal program hit a bump when some municipalities and homeowners were reluctant to allow the workers access.

“Some owners don’t want to sign a permit because they don’t know the alternative — what will happen to their homes if they are demolished,” said Robens Louis, a field engineer with the Haitian Ministry of Public Works. “So some people still live in dangerous homes.”

The government has assessed all homes and marked them red (unsafe), yellow (in need of some repairs) or green (livable). Bootsman said the mayor of Port-au-Prince has signed a decree that all “red” homes will have to be demolished. Enforcement will be key, she added.

Other homeowners recognize it’s an opportunity to have the debris removed at no cost to them.

The rubble is brought to a sorting center, where recyclable material — mostly concrete blocks — are separated from the non-usable flimsy sand blocks and bricks that crumbled to dust when the earthquake struck, explained Jean Roca, project manager for the U.N. Office for Project Services, at a nearby demolition station.

A “crusher” grinds the concrete into material that can be used again for pavement blocks for roads and foundations for homes, providing at least one positive effect from the earthquake’s devastation, Roca said.

He estimates it will be about a year before all debris is removed, sorted and recycled into its new purposes.

The NewsHour traveled to Port-au-Prince for the second anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. View more of our Haiti coverage:

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