By MARC LACEY
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The only sound inside Haiti’s National Palace comes from the crunch underneath one’s soles. Its ornate reception rooms are strewn with rubble. The stench of decaying bodies, a week and a half after the earthquake, still wafts in the air.
Usually a bustling place full of officials and attendants as well as a tight net of security, it is a ghost palace now, abandoned, eerily silent and profoundly destroyed. Its majestic white domes have collapsed atop the lower floors, becoming symbols of a hobbled Haiti. The wings that are still standing have wide cracks in the walls, buckled ceilings and detritus-filled office suites.
A furious recovery effort is under way at the palace and other key government buildings around Port-au-Prince that are the country’s administrative lifeblood. At the Finance Ministry, computers were hauled out on Thursday that contained all the tax information for the country, which is the poorest in the hemisphere. After an inspection tour at the palace on Friday, workers will begin scavenging through the wreckage soon to get at national security documents and other confidential paperwork that officials say are filed away there.
When the earthquake hit on the afternoon of Jan. 12, presidential aides dropped what they were doing and ran, with most but not all of them succeeding in getting out. The precarious conditions that remain allowed for only a cursory glimpse of the presidential lair, where coups have been fended off with varying degrees of success and where the management, and mismanagement, of the country has long been carried out.
A walk through the building with an American structural engineer on Friday morning revealed a lockbox on the second floor. It was toppled but still protecting whatever was hidden inside. Thick reports on the country’s struggling educational and health systems were in heaps not far from an elegant chandelier that was slung so low it nearly touched the floor.
In the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, one presidential aide who had hid under his desk as his office collapsed around him managed to flee amid what he described as a thick plume of smoke. Aides said that President René Préval’s sister and assistant went back inside the building on the morning after the quake to secure some material.
The debris has hidden many things but revealed others. Aides said that the earthquake exposed hideaways in the palace that were apparently constructed by past presidents and that current aides said they knew nothing about.
The palace, facing Place Louverture near the Champ de Mars, was often full of pomp and circumstance, with elegant receptions held there for visiting dignitaries. A broken rum bottle littered the floor of one reception area on Friday, along with a slew of gift bags. Elegant chairs were lined up in the main ceremonial receiving area. The limbs from an artificial Christmas tree lay in an entryway.
Most Haitians, of course, have never been inside. Outside the gates of the palace on Friday, hundreds of displaced people lined up for food and water, with United Nations peacekeeping troops stationed at regular intervals to keep things orderly. Eventually, a voice rang out over a megaphone saying that the high-energy biscuits being distributed were finished and that only water remained. “Be patient,” the voice said. “More food will come in the days ahead.”
On the lawn of the palace, a furious meeting was taking place. Top aides to Mr. Préval, who was at his private residence elsewhere in the city when the earthquake struck, sought to get into the damaged palace to recover documents they said were highly sensitive. A hard-hatted structural engineer from California, Kit Miramoto, went over the floor plans of the building and helped them plan the safest route in. As for Mr. Préval’s own office, it was a total loss.
Haiti has had a rough time when it comes to its palaces, with at least four different residences sitting on the same grounds since the 18th century. One was destroyed in 1869 during a rebel revolt that brought down a president. One was bombed in 1912 in an attack that killed another president.
The decision on rebuilding the current palace, whose classical design by Georges H. Baussan was chosen in 1912 after a national competition, remains a long way off, said Haitian government officials, who have relocated to a humble police station across the capital.
First, materials essential to governing have to be recovered from collapsed public buildings, the officials said. Mr. Miramoto, who personally recovered the Finance Ministry computers, was traveling from one key building to another to provide his expert assessment of whether they were stable enough for someone to enter.
After finding a way into a sensitive area of the palace through a second-floor window by ladder, hustling past shaking rooftops in a sprint and trudging up trash-strewn staircases, Mr. Miramoto, invited to Haiti by the Pan American Development Foundation, declared the structure badly damaged but not a lost cause. He said there were materials that could be used to reinforce the portions of the palace still standing so that they could be built upon.
“This is a symbol of the country for you, so you should salvage it,” he advised presidential aides. “If you tear it down, it’s like you’re saying, ‘We’re defeated.’ ”