In Leogane, Haiti, rebuilding starts with scavenging

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A01

LEOGANE, HAITI -- Townspeople say as many as 500 nuns, priests and students were crushed to death when the cream-colored walls of the Sainte Rose de Lima School collapsed in last Tuesday's earthquake, a disaster that destroyed the emotional and physical centerpiece of this city.

Six days later, mourning has given way to scavenging, as scores of men and women on Monday swarmed the pile of tin, timber, tiny desks and metal chairs to pry loose anything useful. The debris of Leogane's best school is now building the refugee camps rising in nearby parks and cane fields.

A trickle of outside help began to arrive Monday in this once-graceful city about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital. No one here is expecting much more, even though by some official assessments the damage to towns across Haiti's southern provinces may exceed that of the ruined capital.

"There's been none so far," said Jacques Marcelius, a fisherman who was using a door latch as a crowbar to pry apart boards. "And we're not able to wait any more."

A town in which everyone lost someone in the quake, Leogane has come alive with the energy and enterprise that comes with knowing you're on your own. This provincial hub immediately west of the quake's epicenter, and dozens of other towns along Haiti's southern finger, has been reduced to chunks and masonry, lumber and dust, leaving thousands dead.

Small international medical teams are just now arriving, and they have been quickly overwhelmed by the number of severely injured. Given the extent of the damage to the capital, Haiti's provinces, historically forgotten by the central government, fear they have been overlooked again at this moment of dire need.

"It's beginning to move in here slowly," said Pete Buth of Doctors Without Borders, the medical organization. "But I'm not going to tell you it's still any good."

Buth's team arrived Sunday evening, five days after the quake. Surgical teams from Japan and Argentina pulled in Monday, setting up an operating suite inside the hospital compound where hundreds of families now live in makeshift shelters.

Scores lined up to enter the mobile clinic, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. Two men ran toward the surgery area carrying a wooden rocking chair. In it sat a boy, 8, his lifeless legs dangling in front of him.

Buth said his team found that most of the injured had been untreated for days. The team cared for more than 70 people with severe infections and crushed limbs within five hours, then mysteriously ran out of patients.

"We took a walk through the tents and found dozens of injured who couldn't make it even the 50 yards to get inside the hospital for care," he said. "That's indicative of what's out there in this city. Many people just can't get here."

Heading west from Port-au-Prince, traffic slows along a two-lane highway, where large cracks have opened since the quake. In several places, hillsides have tumbled into the road, complicating the delivery of water, food and U.N. peacekeepers deployed to protect the aid workers and medical teams.

On the edge of Leogane, where 134,000 people once lived, U.N. peacekeepers closed a road so a small plane could land with supplies. A human corpse burned on the dusty shoulder.

After a few hours in the city, it is hard to see how any but a tiny fraction of its homes and buildings will remain standing. The United Nations estimates that up to 90 percent of the city's structures suffered heavy damage or were destroyed.

Already, most survivors have moved into the streets, with tent cities filling everything from soccer fields to median strips.

Buth said one shipment of water had arrived, although no one in town appeared to be aware of it. Supplies of essentials are dwindling fast. Men with plastic jugs waited impatiently for a chance at what little fuel remains at the Canaan gas station. A $5 bag of rice sells for $10, and survivors are spending much of their time finding the ways and means to feed families.

"Any money we have we spend on staying alive," said Guifaud Frederic, 35, whose brother was killed when his house collapsed.

Frederic's pharmacy fell, too, and he has built a shelter in a park where he lives with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.

"Most everything coming into this country right now stays in Port-au-Prince," he said. "I don't think we'll see any of it."

Along Grande Rue, the main commercial strip, the collapsed grocery stores have been stripped bare. A church trimmed in pale blue crumpled into the street, and a web of electrical wires loops dangerously overhead, low enough that men on motorcycles duck to avoid them. There is no electricity or running water.

Getro Surin, 26, worked in the hot morning sun on a pile of wood and tin sheeting of what had been a gingerbread-style home, using a hammer to pound apart boards. No one has seen the town's mayor since the quake, he said, and only his deputy has appeared to urge survivors to be patient for aid to arrive.

Surin said he couldn't be patient anymore. He works for a local nonprofit agency, and he and three colleagues went to work Monday collecting from the ruins any useful materials needed for shelters.

"Even in good times, they don't care about the provinces," he said. "They're not going to care now."

Thousands of people died here in the quake, and the bodies of Girard Dessources and son Patrico, 7, are still entombed in the rubble of their home on the corner of Grande Rue and Rue d'Enfer.

The sharp pungency of decomposition filled the air around the home, as it did near the remains of several schools nearby. People wear surgical masks or sport a toothpaste mustache, a technique Haitians use to dampen the smell of death. A mass grave has been dug inside the cemetery walls.

"We were just living our lives, and then this," said Nella Jean-Louise, 44, who lived next to the Dessources family. She lives in the street now under a blue tarp and on a plywood floor, begging for food.

Some here have begun taking for themselves. The shelves of two grocery stores, their facades collapsed, have been stripped bare. The scavenging has accelerated as hope fades that supplies from the outside are on the way.

Along one hardscrabble street, a bicyclist teetered, with a length of lumber over one shoulder and a bedsheet tied around his neck. He was coming from the Sainte Rose de Lima School, which once stood among banana and palm trees in the city's lush center.

Only two classrooms remain standing, and a man worked to dismantle wooden student benches with a hammer, stooping beneath a small black cross painted on the wall above him.

A Haitian history book, a woman's sensible shoe and the laminated report card of Sophonie Saint Short, a sixth-grader, appeared in the pile of detritus being worked over for anything useful.

Sophonie scored a perfect 10 in Creole, catechism, hygienic sciences and vocabulary. A photograph on the back of her report card showed four rows of smiling girls -- her class -- dressed in uniforms of sky-blue jumpers.

No one on the pile knew whether she had survived, saying only that not many did.

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