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Haiti Leaders, BU Team Share Long-Term Goals

Experience and expertise put group in position to help with planning

| From BU Today | By Seth Rolbein

BU’s Enrique Silva (from left), Jean Luciene Ligondé, and Elisabeth Coicou and Haitian President René Préval look over maps of Port-au-Prince brought to Haiti by the BU team.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti - Haitian President René Préval met Friday, January 22 with a team of faculty, graduate students, and graduates from Boston University, who used maps and satellite photos depicting the destruction of Port-au-Prince block by block and house by house to demonstrate how immediate decisions on rebuilding the city will affect the long-term future of the country.

“This is the kind of thinking we definitely need, so we can prepare for future catastrophes,” Préval told the group after its 45-minute presentation. The meeting took place in makeshift national government headquarters on the outskirts of town, a former police station near the international airport. Nearly every public office building in Port-au-Prince, including the national palace, has been badly damaged, if not reduced to rubble. In fact, the BU team, which hopes to contribute to long-term as well as immediate reconstruction efforts, found the country so devastated that planning for the future seemed at times surreal.

Large sections of Port-au-Prince look like they have been hit by bombs. Bodies are still trapped below tons of broken concrete slabs, and thousands of people cluster and sleep on the streets. Haitians are struggling to regain some sense of normalcy even as aftershocks ripple underfoot.

Access to the president, as well as one-on-one meetings with the minister of the interior, the minister of public works, the minister of the environment, and the minister of tourism, was made possible by Jean Lucien Ligondé (MET'09), a Haitian living in Boston, whose civil engineering company has worked with the Haitian government for many years. Joining Ligondé were Enrique Silva, a Metropolitan College assistant professor and faculty coordinator for city planning and urban affairs, Anuradha Mukherji, a MET lecturer in city planning and urban affairs, who specializes in disaster management planning, and Ligondé’s wife, Elisabeth Coicou, a master’s candidate in urban planning, whose thesis explores the intersection of disaster management planning and politics in her home country of Haiti.

At Ligondé’s urging, the group mobilized almost immediately after the earthquake struck. Working with Sucharita Gopal, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of geography and environment, and Magaly Koch, a research associate professor at BU’s Center for Remote Sensing, as well as specialists from Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis, teams of graduate students produced more than 60 maps and charts detailing the destruction of Port au Prince. The group flew to Santo Domingo on Tuesday, January19, made its way 10 hours by bus overland and across the Haitian border on Wednesday, and began initial conversations with government members on Thursday.

By Saturday afternoon, after meeting with Leslie Voltaire, a Haitian architect working under Minister of Tourism Patrick Delatour to coordinate and prioritize the massive response, the BU team produced a three-page overview of thoughts about how the government might proceed. The template, presented at ministerial meetings later that day, called for the immediate construction of temporary shelter for as many as 800,000 homeless people in as many as 80 sites, permanently moving populations away from fault lines and the waterfront, rebuilding along watershed boundaries to create jobs, and encouraging reforestation and the use of renewable energy sources.

“We cannot do emergency relief without thinking of the long term,” Voltaire emphasized, “but speed also is of the essence. We can think and plan, but this is a military operation now, and the generals, the American generals, the Brazilian generals, already are building. We need to be as fast as them, or faster. We have a window of about 15 days to put this into effect.”

“We are so preoccupied, it may not be possible to think in short and long terms,” Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, Haiti’s minister of the interior, told the delegation. “And that’s too bad, because we know you are right, what we decide now will affect everything. But there are also things we need to accept as reality. The business district is destroyed. Almost all of the schools are gone. Most of the public and private universities are gone. We are witnessing a reverse urban migration from the slums, because people are afraid of Port au Prince. And scientifically, there’s a grim future. Only a quarter of the tectonic plate has moved. More will move in the next 20 to 30 years.”

Silva and Mukherji offered broad suggestions and perspectives built on tactics that have worked after other disasters around the world, while Ligondé and Coicou addressed the political and cultural aspects of the crisis.

“Could we try to convene people who wouldn’t normally convene?” Silva asked. “We could be the brokers, get people who are dependent on one another together who don’t ordinarily meet.”

“Very difficult,” Coicou explained. “Haitian decision-making isn’t done that way.”

The group made several recommendations: Haitian leadership should find ways to control the agenda and distribution of massive amounts of aid; every step should include ways to provide work and “empowerment” for Haitians; restructuring and decentralizing the government itself could serve as a national model; solutions must embrace not just Port-au-Prince, but the nation as a whole.

The BU group found that in most cases, key government leaders were already moving in these directions, and the ideas arriving from Boston dovetailed with a planning structure emerging from the rubble. Spurred on by Ligondé, using his and Coicou’s deep Haitian roots and expertise, adding Silva’s and Mukherji’s broad academic training and international overviews, the small BU team found itself in a unique position. Even as USAID and other large relief organizations are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort, this small troupe has helped Haitian authorities distill thoughts, articulate policy, and conceive of how best to rebuild a devastated nation.

“Somehow, we need to figure out how to mediate a relationship between Haiti and the international donors pouring in,” said Bien-Aime. “With the universities beside the government, we have a better chance of realizing what we need.”

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