By Jacqueline Charles, Lesley Clark, and Trenton Daniel, The Miami Herald
PORT-AU-PRINCE — With dozens of black-and-white government dump trucks, excavators and other heavy equipment parked on the lawn of a crumbled presidential palace, Haitian President René Préval on Monday declared that the country’s reconstruction has begun.
“While we’re continuing to help people in the camps, we officially want to launch the reconstruction phase to allow these people to get out from underneath the tents,” Préval said, adding that 100 of the CNE vehicles are being dispatched to neighborhoods to help in demolition and rubble removal. “It will not be easy and it requires a lot of resources. Before we reconstruct, we must clean up.”
Préval marked the six-month anniversary of the catastrophic quake with a morning ceremony recognizing some two dozen Haitian and foreigners including Miami fire rescue volunteer Karls Noel Paul who helped in the early days.
Over at the U.N. Stabilization Mission, staffers marked the day with tears and the unveiling of a mural by eight Haitian artists that commemorated the 102 staff members killed.
In South Florida, there was good news. Federal officials announced at the Miami field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they plan to extend the deadline for undocumented Haitian nationals living in the United States to apply for Temporary Protected Status. They also said they are reviewing the possibility of extending the benefit, which defers deportation, to those who arrived shortly after Jan. 12.
But immigration advocates remained concerned over how to legally get more Haitians still contending with the rubble-rife aftermath out of the country.
“It’s something that would be a tremendous shot in the arm to the recovery of Haiti,” immigration advocate Steve Forester said.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his office also is examining — along with the state department — whether to expedite visas for Haitians whose petitions for relatives in Haiti have been approved.
In Washington, President Barack Obama, meeting with Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, thanked that nation for coming to Haiti’s rescue, while Cheryl Mills, chief or staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, provided a progress report . It includes providing food to the estimated 1.5 million left homeless by the quake and improvements in healthcare.
“There is still an enormous amount that needs to be done,” Mills said.
Housing and removing rubble remain Haiti’s two biggest challenges, Préval said during the ceremony that was attended by former President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission.
With enough rubble — 20 million cubic meters — to fill five super domes, Haiti has struggled to move to reconstruction. Préval said his government was considering a 90-day plan that would expedite the removal, yet still only take care of 10 percent of the debris.
But he also pointed out some quiet progress. In the hilltop neighborhood of Fort National, the government has been seeking to move people back into their homes, sending in heavy equipment to demolish and employing residents in cash-for-work programs. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes later toured the site.
Critics have slammed Préval and his government for not moving fast enough in a country that even in pre-quake days struggled to provide basic services to its 9.6 million citizens.
The international community, too, has come under fire for not providing the aid it promised when dozens of countries in March at a donors conference in New York pledged $5.3 billion in reconstruction assistance. Clinton said he intends to spend the next seven weeks making sure they provide a schedule of reimbursement.
“When we come out of this, we want Haiti to have a strong middle class and we want poor people to own their property and believe they can work themselves into the middle class,” Clinton said.
During the ceremony, Préval handed out a spread sheet to show the origin of $35 million in aid the government has received. The amounts ranged from people who sent 43 cents to $1, to countries that sent $1 million to $5 million.
Monday’s ceremony aimed to symbolize both the tentative end of one chapter and the beginning of another while recognizing scores of Haitians and foreigners who aided Haiti in the days immediately after the disaster.
In all, some 24 people were given medals — marked 12 January 2010 — including Cendra Guillaume, a mother and excavator operator for the government’s road-building outfit, Centre National des Equipments. Her personal plight in helping Haiti’s reconstruction was chronicled recently in The Miami Herald, and later inspired Préval to honor her on behalf of all CNE employees. Half of them were are women.
Others honored included some of the Haitian government’s harshest critics including radio director Mario Viau, head of Signal FM, a local station that has provided round- the-clock news on the quake, and Himmler Rebu, opposition leader and former army colonel who was kicked out of the Haitian military.
Hollywood bad boy-now-Haiti camp manager Sean Penn was also honored.
Charles reported from Port-au-Prince, Clark from Washington, D.C., and Daniel from Miami. El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy also contributed to this report from Miami.
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