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Quake a boon to Haiti salvagers

In Port-au-Prince slums, residents have long had to scavenge to survive. Amid the rubble from the quake, they have few tools, but they have ingenuity and determination.

January 22, 2010|By Joe Mozingo
  • Scrappers salvage metal from a destroyed building in Port-au-Prince Haiti. Since the earthquake, salvage activity has exploded in all areas of the city instead of only the dump.
Scrappers salvage metal from a destroyed building in Port-au-Prince Haiti.… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — In the smoke and dust along Rue La Saline, at the edge of a rubble-strewn dump, a little man with missing front teeth hammered away at a shattered pillar of concrete.

Jean Robert Lemer, 45, had been laboring for hours to extract a piece of the steel rebar that ran through it. But he wasn't making much progress.

If he had a hacksaw, he could cut off the exposed metal. But he had only a little household hammer.

The sun was taking a toll, searing through a pall of white concrete dust and the black smoke of smoldering trash.

Lemer started pounding at the portion of wire sticking out of the concrete, thick as a pencil, hoping he could at least break that off.

"I'm going to try to sell a little bit," he said, "and then buy a sledgehammer and get a big piece." In the slums of Port-au-Prince, residents have long been forced to scrape and hustle in the most desperate ways to survive. And as the economic consequences of last week's earthquake sink in, they will be hit the hardest, as they long have in times of political violence, floods and hurricanes.

But for now, they have rubble to scavenge.

Lemer's brother, Samuel, 49, crouched nearby, cutting foam from a cheap mattress into a square. The earthquake destroyed the upholstery shop where he worked. So he set about salvaging with his brother. He figured he could sell the foam to an upholsterer, if one ever opened again.

Samuel's backpack was already filled with sticks of wood he planned to sell as fuel.

"I'm not wasting my time with the hammer," he declared. "It's too hard."

Piles of white concrete chock-full of rebar lined the road for hundreds of yards. The man-made plateau of the dump rose behind, long sifted down to shredded plastic and dirt, and surrounded by vast slums made of the city's detritus.

The scavenging here is so thorough that in the slum of Cite Soleil, men stand over pots of boiling aluminum, melted down from whatever bits of wire and soda-can tabs people bring them. They pour the molten metal into molds and shape it into pots and utensils.

The earthquake's boon to scavenging is steel. For days, residents have loaded knots of the rebar onto bwet, wooden carts that sinewy men use to haul impossibly heavy loads across town.

A mason, Renel Francois, 35, had a hacksaw and a growing pile of rebar. He hadn't decided whether to sell it or use it to rebuild his house.

He pointed furiously at his stomach. "I am hungry," he said.

He was thin enough that in the United States he would be considered emaciated.

The price of food has tripled, he said.

"We were already hungry," he said. "Now it's just worse."

A couple of miles away, even a business that one would expect to do well after such a deadly disaster was struggling to survive.

Guy Jean Charles builds coffins. He normally bought his wood from the provinces, but transportation has been upended by a shortage of gasoline. Now his workers are scouring the city for planks of wood from fallen buildings. Most of the ruins, however, are concrete. The city's teetering old wood homes, called gingerbread houses for their fanciful fretwork, mostly survived.

The wood Charles' men had gathered was mostly rough and splintered and with no straight edges. He had no power tools except an air compressor for spraying paint.

Yet he had found a way. Under a rusty tin roof next to the city's main cemetery, one of his men cut lengthwise down an 8-foot board with a handsaw. Another used a trowel to coat a coffin with car body filler to cover the cracks.

The workers were running low on the lining for the faux satin interior but had enough for the time being. Shredded paper from office buildings constituted the padding for the occupants' eternal sleep.

By the time a painter sprayed them silver, the coffins looked professionally made, with different shapes and sizes and levels of quality. The workers were making two or three a day.

"Whatever I find I use," Charles said. "I have no choice."

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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