Remains of Montana Hotel, Port-au-Prince. Credit: Joshua Lee Kelsey, USN.

An ACerS Cements Division member tipped me off to an op-ed in the New York Times that appeared this summer that I (and probably many others) overlooked, but is still timely for many reasons. It It was written by three of the member’s colleagues at Georgia Tech — Reginald DesRoches, Ozlem Ergun and Julie Swann — who discuss the problems surrounding the enormous amount of debris, including concrete, rebar and other construction materials, which was left by the earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.

The thrust of the op-ed is that this debris and refuse is an incredible impediment to the rebuilding of the battered nation. These authors outline the basic dimensions of the logistical problem of doing something safely, efficiently and quickly with this stuff:

“A draft of the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ debris management plan says it would take a dump truck with a 20-cubic-yard bed 1,000 days to clear the debris, if it carried 1,000 loads a day — or about three years. But the current rate of removal is much lower. Based on our calculations, partially from the United States Agency for International Development’s reports on debris removal programs, we estimate that it could take 20 years or more.”

They point out that the debris piles block transportation and movement, and add to environmental and health hazards because of leached materials.

At the time they wrote the piece, the authors reported that there was no coordinated effort for removing, storing or reusing these materials. Instead, they said:

“[A]lmost all of the operations in Port-au-Prince are in the form of cash-for-work programs like the ones sponsored by USAID and the European Union, which have Haitians, at best, breaking concrete and loading trucks by hand and, at worst, just moving bricks from one side of a road to the other. Many workers lack masks or gloves. While this inefficient process may put money into the hands of Haitians, it only further slows rebuilding.”

To resolve these problems, DesRoches, Ergun and Swann offered a solid proposal: Create an omnibus debris removal task force to coordinate miscellaneous cleanup efforts, prioritize cleanup sites, regulate the use of cash-for work programs and establish rules for handling and disposing the debris.

When I called Ergun to ask about what’s happened since the op-ed was published, she told me that around the time their story appeared a new surge in interest about the situation in Haiti occurred because it was the six-month anniversary of the earthquake and because former President Bill Clinton and others were in Haiti working on the creation of a reconstruction commission. “We weren’t the only ones writing about Haiti,” Ergun says, “but we were hopeful because we knew that Clinton traveled there with a copy of our story in his hands.”

Unfortunately, it appears that little headway had been made in tackling the debris problems. DesRoches, who has roots in Haiti, continues to observe reconstruction efforts. “I have traveled to Haiti seven times since the earthquake, most recently two weeks ago,” he writes in an email. “Debris is still a major issue, with roughly 90% of the debris still where is was following the earthquake. I believe the lack of progress with debris removal is the single biggest challenge in Haiti and the biggest impediment for moving forward with the recovery and rebuilding.

What few steps that have been taken to deal with with the refuse have been by relatively tiny projects run by nongovernmental organizations. “Sometimes NGOs get funds for very small efforts, but there is still no overall coordination and no big contracts have been assigned,” Ergun says.

The major factor that hangs over Haitian recovery is the nation’s general election. The election of the nation’s president was originally scheduled for Feb. 28, 2010, but postponed because of the earthquake. The lack of clear political leadership in Haiti has created something of a reconstruction mire. The idea of a debris task force isn’t out of the question, but Ergun says, “Nobody wants to do anything until after the elections, and the debris remains.”

That’s part of what makes this story still so timely. The election is less than two weeks away: Nov. 28, 2010.

Hopefully, the debris will addressed soon after, and I suspect that some of our materials scientists and engineers have some productive ideas about what to do with a lot of it. “Finding a way to safely reuse the debris can have a huge impact on the rebuilding, while simultaneously having a major impact on the environment,” says DesRoches.

Stay tuned.