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

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A09

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.

An hour later, the engineer pulls up. Laurent Rousseau glances at the building, turns to Laurole and says: "I'm not going in there. My house didn't go down. I'm already saved. I'm not going to put my head on the chopping block."

Laurole, a tall 48-year-old wearing cargo shorts and a sleeveless gray T-shirt, yanks the surgical mask from his mouth. "Everyone here is scared!" he says to no one in particular, spinning on his heels. He nudges Rousseau into the building and waits outside.

Laurole recognizes the face of a city employee in a pickup truck inching by in traffic. "I need you!" Laurole yells. But the employee turns his head.

"I hate that guy!" Laurole says.

Moments later, a gaunt woman is tapping Laurole's shoulder, complaining that the city government is doing nothing for her. He listens patiently for five minutes but finally can't take it anymore: "Go ask your president," he says sarcastically, stomping away.

No place for city business

Port-au-Prince is largely dependent on the national government for money and other resources, and there is always tension between the two governments. For instance, Port-au-Prince employs garbage collectors, but Laurole says the law allows the city only to pile up garbage, while the national government owns the trucks that collect trash.

"There's no coordination," he says. Indeed, garbage-strewn streets are the norm in Port-au-Prince, but the lack of coordination -- and the mountains of waste -- are even more evident since the earthquake.

Two young men walk across the street and tell Laurole that people are beginning to suffer from diarrhea -- the sidewalks provide ample evidence. Laurole shrugs, and the two walk away.

Finally, Rousseau, the engineer, emerges from the annex building and starts writing a report, leaning on the hood of a dusty Toyota Corolla.

Laurole paces. "I need him to say this building is safe," he says.

As soon as he gets clearance, Laurole says, he will ask one of the few radio stations still functioning to announce that the meeting will take place at 10 the next morning.

He hovers over Rosseau.

"Don't push me," Rousseau says. "Don't pressure me. Let me operate."

Rousseau finishes his report but decides he wants to write a neater version, further delaying and frustrating Laurole. The engineer rewrites the entire page-long report. Satisfied with the aesthetics, he delivers the same verdict: The building is unsafe.

Laurole pivots, changing the meeting place to a borrowed room in the national government's Culture Ministry, on the opposite end of the park.

The next morning, he arrives 15 minutes early, turned out in a pressed dress shirt and slacks. A dozen city employees are waiting for him on a street median befouled by human waste -- none of them is a top official.

They scream when they see Laurole. "We haven't been paid in a month!" Primrose Delva, a 53-year-old street sweeper, screeches.

Laurole pauses to hear their complaints, then disentangles himself and marches toward the Culture Ministry's gate. A guard appears. Laurole pushes his identification card against the metal railing. He pleads. He waves his arms.

The guard is unmoved. Laurole cannot enter. No meeting today.

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