Haiti Leaders, BU Team Share Long-Term Goals
Experience and expertise put group in position to help with planning
Port-au-Prince, Haiti—Haitian President René Préval met Friday with a team of faculty,graduate students, and graduates from Boston University, who used mapsand satellite photos depicting the destruction of Port-au-Prince blockby block and house by house to demonstrate how immediate decisions onrebuilding the city will affect the long-term future of the country.
“This is the kind of thinking we definitely need, so we can preparefor future catastrophes,” Préval told the group after its 45-minutepresentation. The meeting took place in makeshift national governmentheadquarters on the outskirts of town, a former police station near theinternational airport. Nearly every public office building inPort-au-Prince, including the national palace, has been badly damaged,if not reduced to rubble. In fact, the BU team, which hopes tocontribute to long-term as well as immediate reconstruction efforts,found the country so devastated that planning for the future seemed attimes surreal.
Large sections of Port-au-Prince look like they have been hit bybombs. Bodies are still trapped below tons of broken concrete slabs,and thousands of people cluster and sleep on the streets. Haitians arestruggling to regain some sense of normalcy even as aftershocksripple underfoot.
Access to the president, as well as one-on-one meetings with theminister of the interior, the minister of public works, the minister of theenvironment, and the minister of tourism, was made possible by Jean LucienLigondé (MET’09), a Haitian living in Boston, whose civil engineering companyhas worked with the Haitian government for many years. Joining Ligondéwere Enrique Silva, a Metropolitan College assistant professor andfaculty coordinator for city planning and urban affairs, AnuradhaMukherji, a MET lecturer in city planning and urban affairs, whospecializes in disaster management planning, and Ligondé’s wife,Elisabeth Coicou (MET’10), a master’s candidate in urban planning, whose thesisexplores the intersection of disaster management planning and politicsin 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 & Sciencesprofessor of geography and environment, and Magaly Koch, a researchassociate professor at BU’s Center for Remote Sensing, as well asspecialists from Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis, teams ofgraduate students produced more than 60 maps and charts detailing thedestruction of Port au Prince. The group flew to Santo Domingo onTuesday, January 19, made its way 10 hours by bus overland and across the Haitianborder on Wednesday, and began initial conversations with governmentmembers on Thursday.
By Saturday afternoon, after meeting with Leslie Voltaire, a Haitianarchitect working under Minister of Tourism Patrick Delatour tocoordinate and prioritize the massive response, the BU team produced athree-page overview of thoughts about how the government might proceed.The template, presented at ministerial meetings later that day, calledfor the immediate construction of temporary shelter for as many as800,000 homeless people in as many as 80 sites, permanently movingpopulations away from fault lines and the waterfront, rebuilding alongwatershed boundaries to create jobs, and encouraging reforestation andthe 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 thinkand plan, but this is a military operation now, and the generals, theAmerican generals, the Brazilian generals, already are building. Weneed to be as fast as them, or faster. We have a window of about 15days to put this into effect.”
“We are so preoccupied, it may not be possible to think in short andlong terms,” Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, Haiti’s minister of the interior,told the delegation. “And that’s too bad, because we know you areright, what we decide now will affect everything. But there are alsothings we need to accept as reality. The business district isdestroyed. Almost all of the schools are gone. Most of the public andprivate universities are gone. We are witnessing a reverse urbanmigration from the slums, because people are afraid of Port au Prince.And scientifically, there’s a grim future. Only a quarter of thetectonic plate has moved. More will move in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Silva and Mukherji offered broad suggestions and perspectives builton tactics that have worked after other disasters around the world,while Ligondé and Coicou addressed the political and cultural aspectsof 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 onone 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 shouldfind ways to control the agenda and distribution of massive amounts ofaid; every step should include ways to provide work and “empowerment”for Haitians; restructuring and decentralizing the government itselfcould serve as a national model; solutions must embrace not justPort-au-Prince, but the nation as a whole.
The BU group found that in most cases, key government leaders werealready moving in these directions, and the ideas arriving from Bostondovetailed with a planning structure emerging from the rubble. Spurredon by Ligondé, using his and Coicou’s deep Haitian roots and expertise,adding Silva’s and Mukherji’s broad academic training and internationaloverviews, the small BU team found itself in a unique position. Even asUSAIDand other large relief organizations are pouring hundreds of millionsof dollars into the effort, this small troupe has helped Haitianauthorities distill thoughts, articulate policy, and conceive of how bestto rebuild a devastated nation.
“Somehow, we need to figure out how to mediate a relationshipbetween Haiti and the international donors pouring in,” said Bien-Aime.“With the universities beside the government, we have a better chanceof realizing what we need.”