As Haiti begins digging out from under 60 million cubic meters of earthquake wreckage, U.S. firms have begun jockeying for a bonanza of cleanup work.
It's unclear at this point who will be awarding the cleanup contracts, but there is big money to be made in the rubble of some 225,000 collapsed homes and at least 25,000 government and office buildings.
At least two politically connected U.S. firms have enlisted powerful local allies in Haiti to help compete for the high-stakes business.
Randal Perkins, the head of Pompano Beach-based AshBritt, has already met with President René Préval to tout his firm's skills. To press his case, Perkins, a big U.S. political donor with a stable of powerful lobbyists, has lined up a wealthy and influential Haitian businessman, Gilbert Bigio, as a partner.
Perkins isn't the only hard-charging contender for cleanup work. Another is Bob Isakson, managing director of Mobile, Ala.-based DRC Group, a disaster recovery firm whose résumé includes hurricanes, wars, ice storms and floods. He's also met with Préval since the earthquake.
How the work is delegated and who ends up awarding the contracts remains to be seen, but Préval is expected to play a pivotal role in setting priorities, even if others hold the purse strings. The United Nations designated former President Bill Clinton to coordinate Haitian relief efforts, and an international forum to coordinate plans is expected to be held this spring.
"We don't know who's going to fund the cleanup and how it's going to proceed. That's all a mystery,'' DRC's Isakson said. "But cleaned up it has to be.''
In his Jan. 28 meeting with Préval, which was attended by a Miami Herald reporter who was chronicling a day in the president's life, Perkins made a hard sell, boasting of AshBritt's $900 million U.S. government contract to clean up after Hurricane Katrina and promising his firm would create 20,000 local jobs.
"It does no good if you bring in predominantly U.S. labor and when it's done, they leave. This is an opportunity to train thousands of Haitian people in skills and professions,'' Perkins, a 45-year-old Sweetwater native, told The Miami Herald. "If you don't create jobs for Haitians, your recovery is going to be a failure.''
AshBritt, Perkins said, also has clinched a coveted contract to handle future disaster cleanup work for the U.S. government in California and several other states.
"First and foremost, we have the experience,'' Perkins said.
That experience has come with controversy.
After Katrina, some questioned whether AshBritt's political donations or lobbyists paved the way for its fat federal contracts. The lobbyists have included: Barbour Griffith & Rogers, a firm founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Mike Parker, a former Mississippi Republican congressman who also was a senior official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Ron Book, a South Florida power broker.
Congressional hearings after Katrina aired objections that local contractors were passed over in favor of AshBritt. A 2006 congressional report examining federal contract waste and abuse noted AshBritt used multiple layers of subcontractors, each of whom got paid while passing on the actual work to others.
Even now, AshBritt is under scrutiny by the Broward school district after an internal audit found the company allegedly overbilled by $765,000 for work after Hurricane Wilma in October 2005.
Perkins said the internal auditor's assertions "are so baseless and frivolous.'' He said a pending outside audit, ordered by the school district, will show that AshBritt did everything correctly.
The federal government wouldn't have recently re-awarded and extended a contract for future disaster cleanup work if AshBritt were in question, Perkins said. "It's federal money. If anything the auditor said were true, I'd be debarred by the federal government,'' Perkins said.
The AshBritt audit has drawn more attention since the arrest in September 2009 of suspended Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in a federal corruption probe involving the school district's construction program. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty. Investigators have subpoenaed thousands of records pertaining to the audit and questioned board members about Book, who is registered as the lobbyist for AshBritt before the Broward County Commission, but not before the School Board.
DRC, meanwhile, was also quick to react to the potential for new business in Haiti. It had people on the ground in Haiti within 36 hours after the Jan. 12 quake.
Since then, it has been helping Haitian officials and also made a charter plane available to help in relief efforts.
DRC, whose Haiti headquarters is a squat, yellow building off one of Port-au-Prince's main thoroughfares, has been helping in the sensitive task of removing bodies and debris at the Hotel Montana, where dozens of aid workers, college students and United Nations employees died. It also has done work at bank sites around the city.
"We've been asked to do quite a few sites for demolition and the recovery of victims,'' said Isakson, a former FBI agent. "It's a daunting task. It's far from the normal disaster. It's more delicate. The victims' families want to come to the site and have closure.''
DRC, which has been in Haiti for several years and built a campsite used for the construction of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, has teamed up with V&F Construction, one of Haiti's largest road builders and part of the Vorbe Group, which is run by a powerful Haitian family.
Isakson said the company's current work is modest, including setting up generators, toilets and showers.
Meanwhile, Bergeron Emergency Services, part of J.R. Bergeron's Bergeron Land Development in Pembroke Pines, is already running ads to hire heavy equipment operators and project managers to do demolition and debris removal in Haiti.
Bergeron couldn't be reached for comment.
For his part, Perkins has been making frequent trips between South Florida and Port-au-Prince and meeting with Haitian government ministers. His local partner, Bigio, is chairman of GB Group in Haiti, a large industrial and commercial company.
Perkins, who said he had dinner with the Haitian ambassador in Washington two days after the earthquake, envisions using the cleanup of Haiti to lay a foundation for a new economy in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
He said he wants to set up training programs to develop job skills for Haitians and also is talking about hiring Haitian Americans in South Florida to go to Haiti to help in the cleanup and to bridge language and culture gaps.
"The work over there is a massive undertaking that is going to require multiple companies with various disciplines,'' Perkins said.
"It's all about creating jobs,'' he added. "When faced with major devastation and loss of life and property, you have a new opportunity to do things in a new and different way.''