Skip to content

Haiti’s Largest Port Struggles to Return to Normalcy

January 30, 2010

Originally in Provoices, of

A traffic jam engulfs the unpaved road outside Port-au-Prince’s commercial port. Three disorderly lanes of trucks are headed in

Port-au-Prince's north piece was put out of service by the Jan. 12

one direction but barely move, while another lane of cars from the opposite side is pushing its way through on the sidewalk. A convoy of UN peacekeepers is stuck in the jam and tries, unsuccessfully, to help direct traffic. The trucks’ dark, foul exhausts fill the air, while people zigzag between the stranded vehicles.

The traffic jam outside the port is a good sign. Haiti’s largest commercial port was heavily damaged by the earthquake that shook the country on Jan. 12. It was shut down for three full days. Two weeks later, the heavy traffic points towards a return to the port’s once bustling life. But despite the efforts of Haiti’s Port Authority, and of the international task force (Join Task Force 2), to get the port going again at full speed in face of rising demand for docking rights (particularly from ships carrying cargoes of humanitarian aid), it will be months, if not years, before the port returns to what it once was.

Trucks in line to get out of Port-au-Prince's commercial port

Given that a lot more cargo can be brought on a ship than on a plane, getting the port up and running is critical for the ongoing humanitarian mission and for future reconstruction efforts. Port-au-Prince’s one-runway airport can only handle just over a 100 flights a day; hundreds of flights full of relief supplies are queued up waiting for a chance to deliver much-needed food, tents and water.

“It is very difficult to give a timeframe for when the port will be fully functioning again,” said Daniel Depture, a US Coast Guard liaison officer between the Joint Task Force and Haiti’s Port Authority, “because it was all so badly damaged.”

Both the port’s south and north piers were damaged in the earthquake. But while the south pier is still functioning, albeit at a limited capacity, the north pier is out of service. The big cranes that used to pick up hundreds of containers off the ships, worth millions of dollars, have slid sideways into the water over 80 meters and are now unusable. Many containers have fallen into the harbor, making navigation difficult, and hundreds more are sitting under the north pier’s half-collapsed warehouse.

“We are working at about 35% capacity,” said Franz Faustin, Haiti’s Port Authority Security Chief, “in a few weeks we hope to get back to 60% capacity.” Right now the port doesn’t even have electricity and is running on generators.

At full capacity, Faustin said, the port can handle about a thousand containers a day. Now, with the loss of the north pier and

The U.S. military docks on one of the two emergency landing strips built after the earthquake

with the south pier damaged, only between 150 and 250 containers are off-loaded each day, one by one in order not to further damage the weakened south pier. “We are trying to maximize the use of the pier for what it can handle,” said US Coast Guard Daniel Depture pointing to the crumbling strip of cement ahead of him; “this is a lifeline for Haiti.”

To help speed up the off-loading process, the French and the American militaries built two emergency landing strips between the south and the north pier, and have provided Haiti’s Port Authority with landing crafts and other necessary equipment, none of which is available in this country.

According to Faustin, in the next few days the harbor will have to be cleaned of drowned containers and of debris. As he spoke, military divers were scouting the waters preparing to take on the rubble. In the meantime, the U.S. Military has taken over the south pier,

Huge cracks in the concrete lead up to Port-au-Prince's heavily damaged south-pier

and while managing the off-loading of containers on it, is also at work to fix it. “We hope that the south pier will be fully operational again within three to four weeks,” said Faustin. However, U.S. Navy Admiral Sam Perez told Reuters in an interview that repair work on the south pier would more likely continue for 10 to 12 weeks.

The much larger north pier, in the meantime, which normally handles the traffic of containers will need to be completely rebuilt – a process that is expected to take at least two years. “It’s hard to say when the north pier might be ready again,” said Faustin, “it’s a process that takes a long time, starting with the public offer and then on.” Until that will be done, Haiti’s port won’t be able to handle nearly as much commercial traffic it did before the earthquake struck. According to Port Authority officials, in normal circumstances approximately 85% of all imports, and therefore of the country’s custom revenues, came to

The entrance to Port-au-Prince's commercial port was heavily damaged by the earthquake

Haiti through the port. The port operating at less than full capacity then is also a strong blow to the country’s already stumbling economy, besides preventing crucial humanitarian aid from flowing in.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: