Blog Post

Mission to Port-au-Prince

On February 19, I arrived in Port-au-Prince on the first commercial flight to Haiti departing from New York since the January 12 earthquake. Right before landing at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, our plane flew over green fields peppered with skeletons of buildings and splashes of blue from the temporary shelters set up near the airport. While flying over the devastation, I couldn't help but imagine what the city looked like the last time a major earthquake struck, back in 1770. After that catastrophe, many structures were built in wood to resist future quakes, and, at the end of the 19th century a style of wooden Victorian architecture known as “gingerbread” was developed, becoming a symbol of Haitian architecture. Unfortunately, several devastating fires put a stop to wood construction in 1925, and the city started to build structures mainly of reinforced concrete.

One of these surviving gingerbread houses is the historic Oloffson hotel, a grand brick and wood structure, that in the 1950s and 60s was popular with celebrities and writers, including Graham Green who based his 1966 novel The Comedians on the hotel. The pleasant veranda provided a delightful place to meet with our international team and local authorities, and discuss possible ways of collaborating on the preservation of the threatened cultural heritage of Haiti.

One of our meetings was with a retired FBI-agent-turned-contractor, who informed us that the clean-up job in Haiti would be the largest in history. He also told us that the portable toilets used by the thousands of displaced people cost an average of one million dollars per day. After visiting the historic center I was not surprised by his assertions. The photos and videos I saw prior to my arrival did not paint a complete picture of the massive destruction of hundreds of buildings large and small, and the extent of a sea of tents and shacks set up to house the homeless in parks and empty lots in and around Port-au-Prince. Scores of monumental public buildings including the Government Palace lay in ruins, as well as many of the most important churches. Our visit to the palace coincided with the official visit of President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, while our inspection of the destroyed cathedral was done in the company of several looters who were busy removing metal and wood scraps to sell or rebuild their own damaged houses. Neither the police nor the MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) forces were anywhere to be seen, even though UNESCO had requested they provide security to the damaged monuments containing valuable movable materials.

Our visit to the Bois Verna neighborhood, a historic suburb known for its gingerbread architecture, was heartbreaking. Dozens of beautiful masonry, or pan de bois (a composite system of wood and brick infill), houses had been damaged. Hundreds of these former mansions once lined the streets of the area east of the historic center, with deep setbacks elegantly landscaped. In the later 20th century, these yards were filled by concrete structures or surrounded by high walls that obscured the beauty of the historic houses behind. The earthquake damaged many of the mansions, but also demolished scores of the more recent constructions revealing formerly hidden beauties and providing a glimpse of what this elegant neighborhood looked like before the economic and political failures of Haiti brought on the deterioration of the historic urban fabric of Port-au-Prince. One can only hope that the crumbling of the concrete walls and sub-standard additions by the force of the earthquake will signal the abandonment of corner-cutting practices in construction and the return to better-built buildings. (The white cloud rising from Port-au-Prince immediately after the earthquake was made by the calcium carbonate used as concrete aggregate instead of the better-quality sand, as it crumbled away from the smooth reinforcing bars used instead of the better-quality textured ones.) Understanding the failures and establishing (and enforcing) stricter building codes will be essential in the reconstruction of Port-au-Prince, and the use of proper materials should not be considered a luxury but rather a basic life-preserving necessity.

The government of Haiti has already announced it will restore the Government Palace, several ministry buildings, and the churches of greatest historic and cultural significance. Privately owned homes and business will remain threatened, as it will not be easy for all owners to find the resources to restore and rebuild their properties. The creation of owner incentives for restoration and sustainable use is one possible planning tool to assist with the recovery efforts in Haiti and the preservation of the character of important sites in Haiti. WMF placed the Gingerbread Houses on the 2010 Watch to call attention to their historic importance and their viable use for contemporary needs. The earthquake has not altered WMF's belief that these are important community resources. These structures proved more resilient than most newer construction during the 35 seconds that brought Haiti to international attention on January 12, 2010.