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BU Team In Haiti Works To Transform As They Rebuild

(David Gilkey/NPR)

A U.S. Army soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division is surrounded by Haitians at a newly established food distribution site in the hills above Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday. (David Gilkey/NPR)

BOSTON — Well before the worst natural disaster in Haiti’s recorded history, a team from Boston University had been planning a long-term development project in the Caribbean nation. But last week’s earthquake called for immediate action. The group arrived Wednesday in Port-au-Prince after receiving an SOS phone call from Haiti’s interior minister, asking for help with urgent rebuilding needs.

The group will try to balance the enormous demand for immediate relief with the work they’ve been doing to develop a lasting, self-sustaining infrastructure for the impoverished island.

“I think that everyone believes that, in this catastrophe, the only way to respect the dead and to honor them is to try and begin a transformation here,” said Seth Rolbein, editor of BU’s daily news Web site,  who is traveling with the development team. “Port-au-Prince was a failed city on a lot of levels, and to just rebuild a failed city is not a solution, and I think that’s what this group is thinking about.”

The BU team includes a professor of urban design, a Master’s candidate in disaster relief with a specific focus on Haiti and a Boston-based Haitian businessman with close ties to the government and the interior ministry. “Even as the earth still tremors, people need to start to talk about what’s next,” Rolbein said. “And this group is ready and willing and able to offer their help.”

In addressing Haiti’s short-term needs, Rolbein said that his team brought “a great deal” of medical supplies from Boston-area hospitals, as well as detailed satellite maps of Port-au-Prince taken after the Jan. 12 earthquake, which will help to identify the most-devastated communities.

As for the bigger picture, “this group’s belief is that there are three key things that need to happen,” Rolbein said.

“One, the planning process that they are going to be advocating can’t only involve Port-au-Prince, it has to involve the whole country. Second, they can’t simply hope to reproduce the status quo, to put up things socially and physically that aren’t sustainable. Third, the Haitians themselves really need to guide and control this process, with help from the outside world, but with Haitians doing the main bulk of the planning.”

Rolbein also spoke of the vivid scenes he witnessed upon entering the capital city by bus as darkness set in.

“Port-au-Prince is always an evocative place, regardless of disaster and catastrophe. Dark streets, people making there way through rubble,” Rolbein said. “I can hear the sounds of machetes being sharpened and people calling below … There was rubble everywhere, buildings down, massive destruction.”


Click “Listen Now” to hear the interview with Seth Rolbein. The BU group will be in Haiti until Monday and Rolbein will provide periodic updates to WBUR.

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