Restoring electrical grid a daunting job for Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Six weeks after an earthquake flattened downtown Port-au-Prince, power has returned to nearly half the city's neighborhoods.

Most, however, are in the hilly southern suburbs, which look down at night on the miles of near blackness where most of the people rendered homeless by the quake abide in teeming tent cities.

Even before the Jan. 12 quake, electrical service in Haiti meant an average of 10 hours of power a day delivered by a rickety grid to just a quarter of the population — not even half of them paying customers.

If Haiti now hopes to shake off its status as the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, experts say, it will need to build a power system far better than the highly subsidized, cash-hemorrhaging utility it had before the disaster.

It is starting almost from scratch.

The state-owned Electricite d'Haiti, like the government, is essentially broke. Fewer customers than ever are able or willing to pay.

Haiti immediately needs $40 million to get its grid back to pre-quake status and pay its 2,500 workers, hundreds of whom are living in tents, the utility's director-general, Serge Raphael, said.

The company said it needs to figure out how to finance itself — the payroll alone is $15 million a month — as well as provide power to the millions of Haitians who can't afford it.

"This is one of the most pressing problems that Haiti is facing," said Ernest Paultre, the U.S. Agency for International Development's chief engineer for Haiti.

Utility chief Raphael said his biggest problem has always been the utility's inability to collect from its users.

"In the slums, how can you make people pay for power?" he said. The utility has only been able to collect on between 10 to 15 percent of December's bills, he said, and it only expects about one in three ratepayers to pay up through the end of April.