PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Defying pleas to wait for Haiti's reconstruction, families lugged heavy bundles of wood and tin up steep hillsides Friday to do the unthinkable: build new homes on top of old ones devastated in the earthquake.
The defiance reflects growing anger and frustration among Haitians who complain that their leaders – and any rebuilding plans – are absent more than two weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake damaged or destroyed thousands of homes in the capital.
Few tents have been supplied, rubble remains strewn in many streets, and signs begging for help in English – not Haitian Creole – dot nearly every street corner in Port-au-Prince.
It could take another month to get the 200,000 tents needed for Haiti's homeless, said Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the culture and communications minister. Haiti now has fewer than 5,000 donated tents.
In the concrete slum of Canape Vert, an area devastated by the quake, dozens of people were pooling their labor and getting on with rebuilding.
"I have 44 years' worth of memories in this house," said Noel Marie Jose, 44, whose family was reinforcing crumbling walls with tin and wood.
"I got married here. I met my husband here. My mother braided my hair there where these walls used to stand," Jose said. "Even if it's unsafe, I can't imagine leaving. Even if the government helps, it will come too late. This is how it is in Haiti."
Surrounding her, concrete homes were either crushed or had toppled down a hill. Jose and other families said they were worried both about the coming rainy season and fears they may lose their plots after demolitions because they either lack clear title or the government does not want them to rebuild on land it considers unsafe.
Reconstruction, resettlement and land titles are all priorities of the government of President Rene Preval – but so far in name only. The government has been nearly paralyzed by the quake – its own infrastructure, including the National Palace, was destroyed – and so far it has been limited to appeals for foreign aid and meetings with foreign donors that have yet to produce detailed plans for the emergencies it confronts.
Step one is moving people from areas prone to more earthquakes and landslides into tent cities that have sanitation and security but have yet to be built. Preval has engaged in dozens of meetings with potential outside contractors to discuss debris removal, sanitation and other long-term needs. Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary of the Organization of American States, has offered help in creating a new Haitian land registry – a process that could take months if not years because countless government records were destroyed in the quake.
Haitians ardently defend their property rights. If a family has occupied land for more than 10 years, they typically have gained ownership rights even without a deed. For some families, small homes have been passed on through the generations. Few Haitians have insurance, and the loss of what few assets they have has crippled countless families.
Many have tired of living in tents improvised from tarps, sheets and bedspreads, opting to rebuild their homes rather than find new plots.
Lassegue said such rebuilding wouldn't be tolerated – and that the government wants to develop and implement a comprehensive reconstruction plan that might feature building codes, an anomaly in this impoverished nation.
"We've been sleeping outside but the rains will come soon," said Merilus Lovis, 27, taking wooden planks and erecting them for walls inside the foundation of his former home, where his wife and daughter died. "I'm scared of the floods on this hillside but I don't think that God would let such bad things happen twice."
Paul Louis, a 45-year-old porter, has started a business buying wood from scavengers and selling it on the street. He purchased a cracked and worn 1-by-8-foot board for about $2 and was selling it Friday for $3.
"People are afraid to build with concrete now," Louis said.
In another neighborhood, people dug through destroyed homes to salvage materials. Women did the wash amid the ruins.
"I have stayed, but I lost my home," said Thomas Brutus, who lives perched precariously on a debris-strewn hillside in a shack made from the remains of destroyed homes. "So I made this little house, even though I know it's dangerous. We have been here for 14 days and have received no help."
Many residents say they're staying because they grow vegetables on their small plots. Thousands of others have swarmed to improvised tent camps, where Elisabeth Byrs, an official of the U.N.'s humanitarian coordination office, said there is a "major concern" about sanitation.
About 200,000 people are in need of post-surgery follow-up treatment and an unknown number have untreated injuries, she said.
Sporadic looting and violence continued to plague the devastated capital, and Associated Press journalists witnessed a deadly clash between looters and security guards Friday in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Teams of looters pried open a store's steel security gate and were making off with refrigerators and other appliances when a security guard showed up, opened fire and killed one of the young men. As he and other guards detained other looters, kicking them as they lay on the floor, soldiers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division happened by and calmed the situation. The Americans then called in Haitian police, who took control of the captives.
It couldn't immediately be determined whether the private guard who shot the young man was arrested.
In other developments:
_ Haiti hopes schools outside the capital not affected by the earthquake can open in coming weeks and that those not destroyed in Port-au-Prince could start operating in March, Lassegue said. An estimated 200 schools in Port-au-Prince were destroyed or partially damaged, many of them collapsing on students. Getting children into schools would help protect them from predators taking advantage of the quake that orphaned unknown thousands and separated thousands more from their parents. Haiti has always had a problem with traffickers looking for child and sex slaves.
_ The United Nations asked for a $700 million agricultural investment fund for Haiti to boost food production and create jobs. The 18-month plan is part of the government's strategy to rebuild the country, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said. Top needs are seeds, tools and fertilizers so farmers can plan for spring planting season.
"The food situation in Haiti was already very fragile before the earthquake and Haiti was highly dependent on food imports," Alexander Jones, FAO's emergency response manager in Haiti, said in a statement.
_ The United States has distributed some 43,000 radios to people in Port-au-Prince so they can hear public service announcements.
_ The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it had suspended operations in Haiti so its agents can focus on the disaster. Traffickers have long favored Haiti as a transit point for South American drugs.
Associated Press writers Evens Sanon and Michelle Faul in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.