When three tropical storms and hurricanes tore through Haiti last summer, helped poured all over the world. But in one of the largest Haitian enclaves in the United States, their gesture of help has been a lesson in Haitian bureaucracy and a story about perseverance.
So last week it came as no surprise that 90 portable classrooms that the Broward school district agreed to donate to Haiti remains stored in South Florida, instead of serving needy children.
”At first sight it looks simple for us to take that donation,” said Charles Manigat, the minister of Haitians living overseas. “The further we go, the more complex it becomes.”
Haiti was originally working with ocean transport company Seaboard Marine to ship the portable school buildings. But Haitian government officials said Seaboard has backed out.
Now the Haitian government is starting the process from first base. Instead of shipping the portable classrooms immediately, it is just beginning to negotiate a contract with Carey Marine International, a Bahamas-based marine construction company, said Leslie Voltaire, the country’s former education minister and now the architect of the project.
Although transporting the large, awkward structures may be expensive, Voltaire said, “as an architect, I can tell you it’s one-third of the price that I can build one.”
The impoverished Caribbean nation was battered by Hurricane Ike earlier this year and has suffered the collapse of several school buildings since then.
”We are witnessing today an unprecedented and historical event that will transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in Haiti,” said Manigat, who thanked the School Board several times Tuesday.
Problems of sending donating goods to Haiti have bedeviled the troubled nation. It was so bad that President Rene Preval, who has made pleas for donations, went through a lengthy meeting with Haitian Americans to explain to them the proper way to help Haiti. People had complained that goods were not reaching those in need, instead they were being sold or taken by unscrupulous officials.
“There are proper ways of sending things,” Preval told a group of Haitian New Yorkers recently. “I know you mean well, but sometimes we can’t let things in just because they are donations.”
Preval then urged the 40 or so congregants to work through Manigat’s ministry to ensure that goods destined for victims, actually do reach them.
In the Broward County case, aside from the donation of the buildings, Port Everglades has offered to waive more than $100,000 in fees to ship the trailer-like buildings. Wal-Mart has offered to outfit each one with school supplies. The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida has contributed $10,000 toward the shipping costs.
But the largest hurdle remains actually getting the buildings across the ocean.
If a contract is signed with Carey Marine by Christmas, Voltaire said he hopes the first shipment of portables will be in Haiti by Jan. 20.
The plan is to use the first portables to create a school and clinics in Cabaret, which is about 30 minutes from Port-au-Prince.
Haiti wants to get the portables as soon as possible because back-to-back storms this past hurricane season damaged or destroyed at least 700 of the country’s schools.
The donation was the result of several months of work and collaboration by Broward School Board member Ben Williams and district construction chief Mike Garretson.
”Today I am just so proud to know that the people on this board — who I call brothers and sisters — are helping my brothers and sisters around the world,” School Board member Phyllis Hope said.
Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Martin County school districts have also also pledged gifts of portables to Haiti. If they all materialize, the country could be the beneficiary of about 3,000 buildings that once held South Florida schoolchildren.
Broward has about 600 older portables that it does not need. School districts are allowed to destroy portables once they are 20 years old, but demolition costs money.
Although they are old, the buildings are safe and fairly sturdy, Garretson said.
They could last another 20 years.
”In [Hurricane] Wilma, we didn’t lose any portables,” Garretson said. “They didn’t blow over.”