Shattered city government in quake-ravaged Port-au-Prince in need of help itself

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- No one can find the administration director. The facilities chief hasn't checked in.

City Hall is now a skeletal hulk of concrete and stucco, sagging grotesquely to the left. In that ruined building are lists that Edouard Laurole, Port-au-Prince's human resources director, wants badly to unearth. Lists of employees, phone numbers, addresses and passwords, all lost since last week's earthquake.

"This is awful," Laurole says heavily, pressing a palm against his brow.

In the wretched chaos of Port-au-Prince, Laurole and a few others are trying vainly to reconstitute a scattered and shattered city government responsible for nearly a million people, slightly fewer than half of the residents of the metropolitan area. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to live in the streets and are desperate for assistance. But before the city can take care of its people, the city government has to fix itself.

City officials venture cautiously into the streets, knowing they will quickly be surrounded by hungry, desperate residents and fearing they could become the targets of pent-up rage. Across the street from City Hall, Lyndsay Jason, the mayor's wife, pleads into a cellphone: "I'm not going out there by myself," she says. "I need some security."

Only a fraction of city employees have working cellphones. The city has no municipal gasoline reserve, so its crews wait in long lines for gas -- like everyone else. And it is down to only a handful of functioning vehicles. City officials need many things, but right now what they really need is a place to hold a planning meeting.

For days, they have conducted the affairs of Haiti's capital from a folding table on the stone-paved driveway of a borrowed mansion in Canape Vert, a once-lush Port-au-Prince neighborhood now overrun with cinder-block shacks. The stench of rotting bodies outside the mansion's walls mixes with the perfume of the flowering trees inside. At the mansion, the officials find that their welcome is wearing thin.

"What is difficult is to make them understand that they have to clean up after themselves," says Yamily Saint Louis, the homeowner. "Nothing is organized."

So Laurole sets off, flip-flops slapping the pavement of the driveway, searching for a more suitable venue. He squeezes into a borrowed Suzuki Sidekick with four employees and jams the clutch hard. "We have to see who is alive," he tells the city employees in the back seat. "We have to find a safe place to meet. We have to find some financial support."

They sputter to a stop outside a city annex building on the Champ de Mars that faces a park, where thousands of Haitians now live in conditions that grow more fetid and squalid with each passing day. Laurole walks delicately up the annex stairs, turning to warn his colleagues, "Don't step too hard!"

"This looks good to me," he says optimistically, seemingly oblivious to the jagged cracks running down the building's facade and to the collapsed balcony. "Get me the engineer!"

An official takes the onus

"At this point, I'm the boss," Laurole says, explaining that he had been unable to reach the mayor. "Normally this would not be my responsibility. But someone has to take charge." He says he draws inspiration from Rudolph W. Giuliani's efforts as mayor of New York in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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