By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 12, 2010; A19
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- As long as anyone can remember, the Grand-Rue was the commercial heart of Haiti, a string of stores in the center of Port-au-Prince beating to the rhythm of a people for whom scraping by was the main national industry.
But in the month since an earthquake devastated the city, the Grand-Rue has been reduced to a showcase of desperation and destruction, an endless line of rubble and shuttered businesses with sidewalk merchants trying halfheartedly to hawk scavenged sundries to customers who no longer exist.
The chaotic, sometimes frantic tempo of scratching out a living in one of the world's poorest countries has dissipated, a walk down the street showed Thursday, replaced by numbed shock, fatigue and listlessness. To judge by the Grand-Rue, the international campaign to reconstruct Haiti will have to begin by restoring hope to a people who traditionally has gotten along, if only barely, by striving against the odds.
One of the hawkers, Claudy Esperance, 43, set up a table of pills and ointments beside the Grand-Rue, his merchandise plucked from the rubble of his little pharmacy. Against a background of collapsed commercial buildings, he stood in the muddy street trying to make a sale to buy food for his wife and three children but seemed to find no takers.
Once the salvaged medicines are gone, Esperance said, he will try to travel to the United States to look for work. Esperance's name means hope, and he knew that a long list of foreign countries have pledged to help Haiti rebuild. But the druggist reduced to street peddling said he doubted the millions in aid money would ever reach people like him.
"I'll give it a few months," he said, "and then I'm leaving Haiti."
U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lucke, who is coordinating a $537 million U.S. aid effort, part of more than $2 billion pledged worldwide, estimated Wednesday that up to 700,000 people have been left without a place to live, in addition to about 200,000 killed and 300,000 injured. He said that international relief is gearing up according to schedule and that officials from around the world have been impressed by the Haitian people's resilience since the disaster struck.
"But nobody should have to be this resilient," he added.
President René Préval announced that 170,000 of the victims have been buried in common graves to prevent the spread of disease. Although their families were deprived of funerals, the nation will hold a day of mourning Friday. Voodoo priests will join Roman Catholic and Protestant clerics in a service on the esplanade in front of the collapsed National Palace.
To house the living, tent cities have sprung up on the esplanade and elsewhere across the city, where families wander between the rows of tarp looking for food and something useful to do. Lucke said relief officials hope to have enough plastic sheeting and lumber in the country to build temporary shelters for all the country's homeless by May 1, the beginning of the Caribbean rainy season.
The first significant rain since the Jan. 12 earthquake fell Thursday, drenching the camps and turning the Grand-Rue into a canal of mud. Trucks and buses moving along the crowded street splashed passersby; sickly yellow puddles formed in the gutter.
A few feet from one of the puddles, Joseph Villanord du Bruzue sat beside his little pile of batteries and electrical sockets, waiting for customers who never came. Du Bruzue, 42, said he had not eaten since the day before and had no idea where his next meal would come from.
His home was destroyed, he said, and his two sons, both students, were left with nowhere to go because "the school also collapsed."
"This is the only business I have," he said, gesturing at his unwanted gadgets. "And nobody's buying."
But in one respect, du Bruzue said, he was lucky. When the quake struck at 4:57 p.m., he was on the second floor of a nearby store. It collapsed into a heap of concrete, but he rode down with the crumbling walls and, when the dust cleared, found himself sitting atop the rubble unhurt.
"There are still dead people under there," he said, pointing at the dusty concrete detritus.
Three doors down, an appliance store was empty, its shutter standing open and only rubble on the sales floor. A gangly young woman sat nearby, staring into space. Asked what happened to all the washing machines and vacuum cleaners, she gestured lazily at the street, silent but eloquent in her unfocused gaze.
The headquarters of the main Haitian telephone company, Teleco, had been erected at the center of things, 10 stories high on the corner of the Rue des Miracles and the Grand-Rue, whose official name is Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Along with the rest of the neighborhood, it was left in a pile of rubble by the quake, crippling the national phone system.
Three steam shovels picked at the Teleco rubble Thursday, pushing it into piles. As the machines worked, dozens of people stood by, hoping to spot usable furniture, office equipment or something else to scavenge. One of them, Frantzo Atibus, 22, was bundling together concrete reinforcement rods with the hope, he said, of using them to replace his family's destroyed home.
On the other side of the street, a young man on a rooftop pushed chunks of crumbled concrete off a ledge, sending them crashing down to the sidewalk and creating great clouds of dust. Below him dangled a half-destroyed sign advertising "Boulangeries Saint Marc. 1929." In happier times, said a resident, it was a landmark bakery and cafe, a place where Grand-Rue merchants used to discuss business over a piece of cake and a cup of coffee.