LABOULE, Haiti -- Published: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The rusty trucks groan as they climb the rugged mountain one after another, puffing toward a loading station to be filled with tons of sand scraped off the ridge. In this dirt-poor nation, the construction process often begins at this rock pit midway up a bleached mountain outside Port-au-Prince where sand entrepreneurs load up, then fan out across the capital in search of buyers.
The construction of buildings here is as unregulated as the collection and sale of the mountain sand that ends up in concrete shacks, sprawling homes and dwellings in places such as Petionville, the suburban city where a recent school collapse killed 91 students and teachers and injured another 162 people.
The flimsy permit process for construction exists with little, if any, government oversight, inspections or accountability. The collapse of the church-run College La Promesse Evangelique, and the partial cave-in of another school five days later in a nearby Port-au-Prince neighborhood, revealed Haiti's archaic and deeply flawed building practices.
"People are building without codes, without norms, without any knowledge, " said Patrick Figaro, a local engineer. "Nobody is there to keep them from doing it."
Figaro, among the first rescuers at the school collapse, said inspectors exist "only on books, " making it easier for individuals to use less cement or rebar in their slabs.
Technically, building laws do exist in Haiti. But few follow them.
Even Haiti's new prime minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis, recounts how no one from the government ever inspected the construction of several schools she built even after she asked them to.
She also recalls how an international body once documented the deteriorating state of Haitian schools throughout the country. The government ignored the findings, she said.
"There are no standards, " Pierre-Louis told The Miami Herald. "What we have to start doing is create standards at all levels. We have to make sure we have the qualifications, the competent manpower and that [they are] empowered to do their job, " she said.
In Haiti, decades of instability from dictatorship, periodic coups and military rule have allowed shoddy construction amid rapid urban growth.
For example, a prized Port-au-Prince hillside, Morne L'Hôpital, was once deemed a protected, no-construction zone. Today, it is home to the Eternal City, a slum of unfinished cinderblock shacks. Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, after seizing power in a 1988 military coup, parceled out the land as payment to army soldiers who helped him.
"Every time there is instability, a bidonville [slum] gets created. Every time there is instability you see the people head for the hills and do what they like, " President René Préval told The Herald.
"We shouldn't lie to ourselves and say tomorrow morning we are going to get rid of all of the bidonvilles in this country, " he added. "But with political stability and continuity, we can then begin to address the problem. It's not something that will be resolved in one day."
Since the deadly Nov. 7 school collapse, recommendations for improving the construction process have poured in from legislators, government ministers and mayors. They include shuttering the sand quarry, adding more building codes and an education commission to study the issue.
But no one has come up with a plan to better enforce the laws that already exist.