Haiti port recovery key to aid, rebuilding, economy

PORT-AU-PRINCE Mon Jan 25, 2010 6:56pm EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - An international task force hoped to repair the main seaport in Haiti's quake-stricken capital enough to handle 700 shipping containers a day by mid-February, the group's leader said on Monday.

But meeting that target will depend on the delivery of equipment to supplement the damaged pier, U.S. Navy Admiral Sam Perez said in an interview at the port.

"We have to bring everything from the bulldozers to the people to the showers to the tents," he said.

Cargo would continue to be unloaded onto the remaining, but extensively damaged, pier while repair work continues, probably for the next 10 to 12 weeks, he said.

"Damages ... were more extensive that we had thought," Perez said.

The pier is now handling about 30 percent of its pre-quake capacity. If pushed, it could unload 200 to 250 containers a day, but debris is limiting the size of the ships that can enter the port.

Repairing the port is essential for both delivery of aid needed to help earthquake survivors and rebuild the country, but also for the resumption of commerce necessary to get Haiti's earthquake-stalled economy moving again.

The magnitude-7 quake that hit Haiti on January 12 left the impoverished country with little wherewithal to rebuild and equipment must be brought in. Few stores are in any condition to reopen and most business is conducted streetside as vendors sell fruits and vegetables, charcoal, shoes and clothing obtained locally.

On Monday, a dripping container was pulled out of the port, just part of the debris that blocks shipping and which divers are attempting to find. U.S. Coast Guard and Haitian pilots are working to install new buoys to mark shipping channels as they are cleared.

Two Improved Navy Lighterage Systems, floating platforms used to transfer cargo from ships to the shore, will be installed at the port, with one before February that could handle 150 containers and a second by mid-February that could handle 300, Perez said.

"We are collaborating with port owners," he added, in order to send ships to other Haitian ports if Port-au-Prince wait times are too long. The Haitian government is in charge of the port recovery operations.

Aid coming into Haiti takes priority now, but soon commercial imports and exports will begin to flow as slots at the port are available, he said.

On Monday, the south pier contained several hundred boxes of aid from the Colombian Red Cross.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and Doina Chiacu)

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