Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A remarkable story of hard work in the midst of devastation

In all the coverage of relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti, I've noticed very little being said about the cleanup, repair and reconstruction of the harbor facilities in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and the search for alternative ways to offload supplies. It's one of the most critical aspects of the international effort there, but it seems it's not as publicity-worthy as photographs of suffering civilians. I'd like to rectify that here by giving you some idea of the magnitude of the work. (All photographs in this article are courtesy of the US Navy Web site, except the first, which is courtesy of Wikipedia.)

It's enormously expensive to fly supplies to Haiti, as opposed to sending them by sea: but at present, it's almost impossible for ships to get their supplies ashore. The harbor at Port-au-Prince ( a small port, offering only seven berths for ships) was left devastated by the earthquake.

Here are a few more detailed pictures to illustrate the scale of the problem. Note the first: Haiti's only crane capable of handling containers. It's now doing a modernist imitation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the middle of the harbor. Without it and its associated quay, containers can't be offloaded in large quantities.

As Forexyard reports, the place is a mess. Quays have crumbled and shifted on their supporting piles; containers, cranes and portable buildings have toppled off the quays into the harbor, making large sections unusable by ships and smaller craft until they're cleared; and shore facilities such as fuel, water and electricity supply aren't working any more. The US Navy's trying to address the latter issues by putting out tenders for the hire of water barges, a harbor supply vessel and another ship for accommodation and feeding of workers, but it'll be a while before they can get there. Meanwhile, ships loaded with relief supplies have to wait offshore.

Needless to say, not much freight is getting ashore through the harbor. Helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft are delivering supplies from the anchored ships onto beaches and hardstands cleared of rubble for use as temporary off-loading points.

As you can imagine, the problems of distribution from such remote points are immense. Haiti's never had a good road network at the best of times, and what there was has been badly damaged by the earthquake. In many cases, bulldozers have to scrape new paths through bush and across mud for trucks to get to where the aid can be landed. Gravel is hastily laid on these tracks, but heavily-laden vehicles chew them up regardless, making constant repairs the order of the day. It's very time- and labor-consuming, and very inefficient; so getting the harbor back into operation is a high priority.

Engineering teams are busy doing just that. Some are scouting for alternative landing sites at small fishing villages, to see whether they can accommodate landing craft and other smaller vessels which can ferry supplies from larger ships offshore.

Other teams are clearing the main harbor at Port-au-Prince of sunken containers, cranes and other debris. It's a hard, slow job, particularly because engineering support vessels can't yet get into the port. New channels are being surveyed and buoys laid to show ships where it's safe to navigate. Meanwhile, work must be shore-based.

Teams of divers are inspecting the damaged piers and quays, trying to determine what can be repaired, or what must be demolished and replaced. It's a dangerous job, swimming among so much unstable rubble . . . and if a strong aftershock occurs, and the rubble shifts, I'd hate to be down there among it! Such work demands not only engineering skills, but real courage as well. As the Washington Post reported a few days ago:

The Americans weren't happy that a French naval vessel, the Francis Garnier, had docked. They weren't being competitive. They were being cautious. The French ship and its cargo could have tipped the pier over like an empty paper cup.

One of the Navy divers said, "Put on your life preservers." He wasn't kidding. Nearby, the civilian engineer for the Navy had made a pendulum out of a piece of string, a twig and a weight -- a half-full plastic eyedropper. He told a sailor to keep an eye on it.

"If it starts to swing, run," he said.

Other teams are trying to erect temporary floating piers and repair less damaged sections of the harbor to allow at least some freight to be offloaded. They're having some success, with up to 150 containers per day already flowing through the port: but this is far less than the required capacity. Work will continue for several weeks, until (it's hoped) by the end of February the harbor should be able to accommodate over 700 containers per day.

Meanwhile, local small craft and ferries can't dock directly against the quays, which might collapse on them, or beneath the feet of those trying to board the ships. Instead, they tie up together at anchor in the harbor, and people walk out from the beach to reach them, or take small boats.

Other teams of engineers are working to repair and upgrade the roads within and leading to the harbor, so that trucks will be able to transport the containers and their contents to where they're most needed. That's a whole article in itself . . . repairing a road network that was already in very poor shape, and has now been hammered almost out of existence by the earthquake. In a country of 11,000 square miles, with a population of 9 million, carving new roads out of nowhere is often difficult: you'll inevitably run over someone's plantain patch or demolish part of their house (which may already be half-demolished by the earthquake, but it's still their property!). The difficulties are legion, and immense.

So there it is . . . many teams, hundreds of people, all working flat-out to provide the basic infrastructure without which aid simply can't reach Haiti in sufficient quantities. It's not glamorous work, and doesn't attract the attention of the TV crews, but it's just as vital as those who are out there distributing aid or providing medical attention.

Spare a thought for the men and women toiling away in obscurity at these tasks. Without them, the prospects for Haiti would be much, much worse.



Anonymous said...

As Nick at Ghost of a Flea says in regards to the French, the Accordian guys are here.

The Italians are up their usual expert appraisals.

Bob said...

Borepatch left a comment on my blog that the empty containers could be converted to housing for homeless Haitians. Damned good idea, that.