PORT-AU-PRINCE – When the earthquake struck this mountainous country in January, in less than a minute, it transformed it from one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere to the largest construction site this side of the Atlantic.

As the country’s leaders unveiled a $14 billion reconstruction plan for the battered country, international excavation and construction companies, including some from Great Britain have lined up for contracts to rebuild the hundreds of commercial and residential properties that were destroyed during the January 12 seismic shocks that left more than 200,000 dead and about a million people homeless.

But real estate experts and government officials say that any significant reconstruction is actually years away. Still, the focus, these experts agree the earthquake should generate major contracts for private companies specializing in construction, logistics, and transport.

Three model homes — two simple wood-frame structures with corrugated roofs and another with a steel frame — have been put on display by the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies near the airport, but have not been built anywhere else. The group says it’s ready to start construction immediately, but has nowhere to build.

Another group, Danish People’s Aid, has put up four simple wooden houses in the hard-hit Carrefour area, where it hopes to build 500 more.

Gregg McDonald, who is in charge of shelter in the international relief effort, said large-scale construction can begin as soon as land agreements are in place.

Private sector firms recently convened at a meeting recently in Miami to consider business opportunities that have been opened up from the destructive January 12 quake.

“I don’t think they have any option but to get private companies in to help reconstruct Haiti, said Kevin Lumb, CEO of London-based Global Investment Summits Ltd, which organized the Miami event, called the Haitian Reconstruction Meeting. “I think it opens up a great deal of business opportunities. Most of their infrastructure is destroyed, their roads, communications, buildings, it’s obviously affected water supply, electricity, so that all needs rebuilding.”

Companies looking for business at the Haiti reconstruction meeting included Georgia-based Harbor Homes LLC, which offers self-assembled PermaShelter houses for those left homeless by the quake, and Virginia-based Agility Logistics, which already supplies food rations to U.N. peacekeeping troops in Somalia.

More than one million Haitians were left homeless and displaced by the January quake and Harbor Homes’ Richard Rivette said his company could provide easily assembled, storm- and quake-resistant galvanized steel homes to create the new villages expected to be set up outside of Port-au-Prince.

But he and other executives at the Miami meeting said they needed to have from the Haitian government and its relief partners a clearer idea of the planned rebuilding strategy.

“Without a master plan, it’s hard to cost estimate it,” said Rivette.

“I think everyone’s looking for the direction, where’s it going to go, how’s it going to work,” said Agility Logistics’ Thomas Shortley, who runs the firm’s business with the United Nations.

But before Haiti and international donors can rebuild this devastated city, they must first destroy it.

The task of knocking down, smashing apart and hauling away the mountain range of rubble left by the Jan. 12 earthquake will take years and cost as much as $1 billion, according to some estimates.

“I have heard the president say that based on what the engineers tell him, it will take 1,000 dump trucks working for 1,000 days to clear away the debris, and I am not sure even the experts know how big is the pile,” said Leslie Voltaire, an architect and diplomat who is a member of the reconstruction team.

What the experts do know is that the rubble is very heavy and very much in the way. U.N. rapid assessment teams estimate that the 245,000 ruined or hopelessly damaged structures in Haiti will produce 30 million to 78 million cubic yards of broken blocks, twisted metal and pulverized concrete — enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome, from playing field to roof, up to 17 times.

The British government has sent members of its new UK Civilian Stabilisation Group, a unit of experts charged with helping shore up unstable states, to Haiti. International development junior minister Mike Foster has said they are supporting the Haitian prison service, whose buildings are in dire need of reconstruction because of earthquake damage: “helping to stabilise the Haitian government,” he said.

U.S. contractors with experience clearing Baghdad after bombings and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina recognize that there are lots of money to be made shuttling Haiti’s debris. They are scrambling to partner with local construction firms to secure access to workers and heavy equipment and to align themselves with the Haitian business leaders who have connections to the government and the international donor consortiums that will write the big checks.

President Rene Préval might have been overly optimistic about the 1,000 days. If a Mack truck can haul about nine cubic yards of concrete debris, the cleanup could require as many as 8 million trips — through the snarl of downtown Port-au-Prince’s narrow streets to the still-nonexistent dumps and recycling centers at the city’s edge.

“How long did it take to remove the twin towers after 9/11? It took them two years, and that was in New York City, and it cost a lot of money. We are Port-au-Prince, and our government doesn’t have any money,” said Philippe Cineas, director general of Haiti Blocs, a concrete-block maker and construction company that has cleared rubble from five sites, including a bank “where we had to work very slowly, very carefully, because they were looking for the vault.”

The Haitian government, using funds from the international community, has targeted only a handful of sites, beginning with schools, hospitals and public offices where large numbers of people might be buried. It has also begun to topple a few larger, listing buildings that are in danger of sudden collapse. Some private companies and individuals have paid to have debris cleared in order to get back to work or to recover the dead. Only a few homeowners have started to dig out.

In a city of rubble, Reynold Bonnefil, president of Haytian Tractor is very much of demand. He owns the Caterpillar excavators, so necessary to get the job done.

Bonnefil said there are maybe 150 excavators, tops, in the whole country, counting new and used. He said his firm controls 90 percent of the market, though he expected it would soon have lots of company. Excavators are not cheap. An Internet search for used Caterpillar and

“I am told that they are working on a package that will cost $1 billion,” Bonnefil said, to be funded by a combination of donors and financing that might include the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. Dismantling a single large building can cost $20,000 to $80,000, he said. Many such decisions will be made leading up to a crucial U.N.-led donor conference this month.

said Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a UN consultant said that typically, a tragedy such as this is followed by international pledges of billions of dollars, but then only a slow trickle of help. The government of Haiti, overwhelmed far before this earthquake, is in no position to pester 20 or more complicated donor agencies to follow up on designing projects and disbursing funds, Sachs said.

According to Sachs, the commercial and residential shelters must not be makeshift units that would be destroyed by Haiti’s frequent floods, landslides and hurricanes. The country will need a revived and expanded construction industry to produce the brick, reinforced concrete and other vital materials. Private companies, domestic and international, should be contracted to set up operations.

Still, the demand for real estate and civil engineering expertise is only expected to increase in Haiti as the attention shifts towards permanent reconstruction, and some development agencies have been calling for care to be taken to avoid slapdash construction fuelled by the haste to house the homeless.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has called for rebuilding to be delayed to allow for “proper planning, so that reconstruction leaves the Haitian people better protected from hurricanes and earthquakes than they were before the January 12th earthquake”. Its chief executive Brendan Gormley said: “Right now the Haitian people need good quality temporary accommodation and emergency relief. But we are also looking at how we can help people to rebuild their lives over the next three years, leaving Haiti better prepared for future natural disasters.” The DEC noted a report from Arup on the response to the Tsunami disaster which highlighted some construction mistakes resulting from over-hasty reconstruction in Aceh, Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the Home Builders Federation has called on its members to help Haiti by giving money to Habitat for Humanity, a building reconstruction charity. The federation’s chairman Stewart Baseley said: “It only seems appropriate that our industry should support a charity that specialises in shelter provision, housing repair and reconstruction.”

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