Blog Post

Mission to Santo Domingo and Jacmel

The aftershocks of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12 were still being felt three weeks later when, from February 3 to 6, 2010, I joined an international mission to Santo Domingo and Jacmel. Dinu Bumbaru of ICOMOS International, Esteban Prieto and Carlos Flores Marini of CARIMOS, Herman van Hoof of UNESCO and I joined Daniel Elie, Director of ISPAN (Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National) and other Haitian experts for a series of meetings in Santo Domingo, and a one-day visit to Jacmel, a historic city on the southern coast of Haiti about 90 Km from Port-au-Prince, to evaluate the effects of the earthquake on Haiti's cultural heritage and help establish priorities for intervention.

Early reports and the photos we received highlighted the urgency of disaster-preparedness, and the critical need to enforce appropriate building standards. They also showed us that the historic fabric of the urban centers affected by the earthquake—Port- au-Prince, Leogane, and Jacmel—fared better than the sub-standard reinforced-concrete constructions that collapsed, killing thousands. But many monuments and historic structures were damaged, and now lie vulnerable to the approaching hurricane rains. Hundreds of volunteers offered their expertise, but there was no one able to organize their efforts, and well-meaning but unqualified teams had already put demolition markers on perfectly salvageable historic structures, sometimes without their owner's consent.

On Thursday, minutes before our mission to Haiti was scheduled to depart from the Higuero airport in Santo Domingo, permission to land the private planes was granted by the Canadian forces in charge of the local air space, and 90 minutes later we arrived in Jacmel, a town inscribed on the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage in 2004. My first impression of the city was that it was a normal, lively urban center but, as we made more in-depth observations, we saw heavy destruction, confusion, and people's fears for the future of their formerly thriving, vibrant city.

Local organizations, including the AECID Crafts School and Ciné Institute Jacmel, have risen to the occasion and joined the reconstruction committee organized by ISPAN and the Municipality of Jacmel, even though their headquarters, along with the houses of many of their members, were destroyed. Their heroic example has given hope and a sense of control to a traumatized community.

Our walking tour of Jacmel unveiled hidden treasures like Moulin Price, an early 19th–century sugar refinery with rare surviving machinery cast in Liverpool in1818, but also revealed serious damage to important monuments, such as Manoir Alexandra and Macri House, which clearly will need immediate attention to protect them against the impending spring rains. Rue du Commerce and Rue St. Anne, probably the most representative streets of Jacmel dating back to the city's early days as an important international trading center, suffered visible physical losses, but, more importantly, their former spark as artistic and tourist destinations seemed to be temporarily dampened.

Remarkably, the 19th-century Old Prison and Iron Market looked untouched, while more recent construction, such as the Jacmel Radio Station and several structures along Rue de la Liberté, lay in ruins.

Despite the political turmoil throughout the 20th century, Haiti had been experiencing a period of relative stability when the earthquake hit. The Haitian nation will certainly survive, but it will need help in implementing a vision for the future through long-term planning, in which preservation must play an important role. Preservation of historic monuments, artifacts, and archives of Haiti will be a crucial enterprise for all of us in the weeks, months, and years to come. This is more than an act of nostalgia, or the mere preservation of memories, these are the building blocks of national and cultural identity.

I will be participating in a second mission to Haiti, this time to Port au Prince later this week, so stay tuned for my next dispatch...