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Profile: Alix Célestin

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The hour brings forth the man…

A national crisis can bring out the best in people. The earthquake of January 2010 brought chaos and tragedy to Haiti – yet somehow the job of restoring normal maritime services had to be done. A key figure in this time of crisis management was Alix Célestin, general director of the National Port Authority (APN). He spoke to Gary Gimson.

Around the Caribbean there are many unsung heroes quietly undertaking important jobs on behalf of their nation.

Perhaps no one in the Caribbean’s maritime sector is more of an unsung hero, or has faced a greater challenge, than Alix Célestin. This is a man who survived a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed over 100,000 of his fellow countrymen and women and went on to become a key player in Haiti’s post-disaster period.

That seminal moment in Haiti’s recent and sometimes troubled recent history has, in a perverse and unforeseen way, led to the nation’s rapid development – not least in its ports and harbors.

It was nearly five years ago, on the morning of Wednesday, 13 January 2010, that Haiti faced a truly apocalyptic situation. The earthquake left Haiti without a functioning harbor and with a badly damaged airport, no cargo handling equipment and no power supply. Many port workers had been killed or injured. Without a seaport or airport, emergency aid could not be delivered to the stricken nation.

Adding to the scene of despair, many of the country’s leading figures, including government officials, the opposition leader Micha Gaillard and the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, had been killed.” And chains of command were badly disrupted.

But among those who survived, someone had to take charge. Memories are still fresh and Alix says: “Soon after the quake, the crisis management unit was activated in order to protect the port’s assets and to coordinate the recovery process. Security was a big challenge due to a number of security personnel casualties, limited access to public transportation and because the perimeter fencing had collapsed. Therefore it was very difficult to control access to the port.”

Dark days

Further recalling those dark days, he adds: “However, we managed to secure the port facilities, which were later reinforced by United States troops. The US Army provided a satisfactory security level and, with the arrival of the special Coast Guard unit, a vessel traffic management system was put in place in order to regulate notice of arrival and allocate a berth for ships to discharge cargo.”

In fact, with an epicentre at Léogâne, just 25 km west of the capital, the earthquake had destroyed most of the port facilities in the western part of Haiti, including Port-au-Prince’s public quays and those used by Moulins d’Haiti, the Thor Oil Terminal and Terminal Varreux SA (TEVASA) – then as now the nation’s largest privately owned cargo handling facility.

Alix explains: “These facilities were paralyzed for two weeks and could not receive any humanitarian cargo to alleviate the suffering of the people. It took two weeks for the US Army to develop an appropriate response to the disaster by bringing in two floating barges to assist with the discharging of both humanitarian and commercial cargoes. The US Army also built a couple of ramps on the beach designed to ease the arrival of LCUs [Landing Craft Utility] and ro-ro ships.”
Some time had passed since the momentous events of 2010 and APN had long since moved from emergency to recovery before Alix was drafted in to take the helm and guide the national authority forward with future planning and its investment and operational decisions.

Since he took charge at APN it has been a busy period for Alix, who has been active on a number fronts. His achievements are many and they include:

  • Reconstruction of the Port of Port-au-Prince. Learning some of the lessons from 2010, APN has been building a new para-seismic 800,000 teu capacity container terminal due for completion in mid- 2015.
  • Establishment of a commercial department and a port planning unit.
  • Negotiation of a sister port agreement with the Port of Miami.
  • Signing of an MoU for joint task forces in port development with the National Sheriff Association, the ports of St Bernard, New Orleans, South Louisiana, Jaxport and Dakar
  • Completion of the Port Sector Reform draft
  • Rehabilitation and expansion of the nation’s second-largest port at Cap Haïtien with US$65 million in US Agency for International Development (USAID) support. This project is being undertaken in three phases.
  • Rehabilitation of Haiti’s major cabotage ports of Gonaïves, Saint-Marc, Wharf Jérémie (Lasaline), Jérémie, Petit-Goâve, Miragoâne and Les Cayes.

In Port-au-Prince, Alex is working hard to fulfil his ambitions: “We are rebuilding the North Pier in order to provide a more efficient and safe infrastructure and ultimately to eliminate the surcharges associated with the renting fees for floating barges.”

He has implementing the institutional and legal reform measures in order to create a business environment such as a private-public partnership framework to attract significant private investment and to open the sector to competition by increasing the number of shipping lines serving the port.

Heartened

Today, APN employs over 560 staff – nearly 400 in Port-au-Prince and about 80 in Cap Haïtien while others are scattered among the nation’s coast ports. All port workers are employed directly by private terminals.

Looking ahead, Alix is also heartened by Haïti’s increasingly positive image and by the level of foreign investment now flowing in – especially in the hitherto-overlooked tourism sector. “It’s a real sign of the times that Haiti is being viewed more favourably as a cruise destination,” he says. “Up until now, the only cruise ship port was Royal Caribbean’s dedicated facility at Labadee. But in recent weeks Carnival Corporation announced plans to invest US$70 million in a new cruise facility at Tortuga, a 180 sq km island off Haiti’s north coast and once notorious as a pirate base.”

There is still much to do and Alix cites the development and co-ordination of a master plan for both major and secondary port development in Haiti as his biggest challenge. He is keen that potential investors are clear about the likely competitive environment for the next 10 to 20 years.

He says Haiti also needs to carry out institutional and legal reforms in order to create a business environment to attract significant private investment and to open the sector to competition by increasing the number of shipping lines serving the port.

Let us hope it is now all plain sailing for Haiti and for its unsung hero, Alix Célestin.

 

All about Alix

Born and bred in Port-au-Prince, Alix went to the Petit Séminaire Collège Saint-Martial and later attended the Institut Superieur Technique in his home town before completing his education overseas at the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris.

Returning from France in 1975 and now suitably qualified, Alix got his first job in the construction sector. But by 1988 he had risen rapidly to become chief of staff in the office of Haiti’s first-ever but short-lived prime minister.

Three years on and once again being recognised for his past skills and expertise, he was appointed technical director for the Autorité Portuaire Nationale (APN). But instead of hanging around to draw his pension, Alix was soon back in the private sector as part-owner of Servibois, a company selling doors, furniture and windows.

Another career switch came when Alix joined the Conseil National des Télécommunications (Conatel) as administrative director before ending up back at APN to take up his present position as general director in May 2012 – nearly two and a half years after the earthquake.