Jan. 20, 2010 -- Harsh realities have always been a part of life in Haiti. And in the week since the earthquake, the world's attention has been focused on the human suffering there and how to assist.
But reconstruction in Haiti will begin eventually, opening the door for another harsh reality: profiteering.
While the concept of making money from tragic circumstance is most often linked to wars, natural disasters are also routinely seized upon by some as moneymaking opportunities, often by unscrupulous black-market operators who peddle scarcities such as bottled water and gasoline, at marked-up prices.
But fly-by-night gouging operations should not be confused with legitimate businesses whose products or expertise suddenly come into demand. Undoubtedly, billions of dollars will flow into Haiti in the next several years, which will provide certain companies with economic opportunities.
"The money will come and, yes, there are a number of companies well-positioned to benefit from that money," said Tom Herzfeld, a Miami-based money manager who runs a fund specifically focused on the Caribbean. "That doesn't make them profiteers."
Transporter on the Spot
One example of a company poised to profit from the rebuilding of Haiti is Jacksonville, Florida-based Trailer Bridge Inc., Herzfeld said. The freight transportation company, which trades publicly on the Nasdaq under the symbol TRBR, is one of the few cargo carriers with a fleet of vessels specifically designed to operate in shallow-water ports such as those found in Haiti.
Trailer Bridge said last week that it was expanding its activities in the Dominican Republic, which is on the island of Hispaniola and directly adjacent to Haiti. Additionally, the shipper said that it had agreed to assist the U.S. government and other entities in the region with Haitian relief efforts.
The company's expanded activities in the Dominican Republic, which involve carriers making trips there now every week instead of every two weeks, was in the works prior to the earthquake, a spokesman said.
Cement Business Likely to Benefit
Meanwhile, the world's largest cement maker, Cemex, a Monterrey, Mexico-based company with a plant in the Dominican Republic, is another company that Herzfeld sees as a logical beneficiary of reconstruction in Haiti.
Cemex trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol CX. Jorge Perez, a company spokesman, said Cemex has operated a plant in the Dominican Republic since the mid-1990s and that it also operates three marine terminals in Haiti. Cemex's 115-person staff there is OK and accounted for, Perez added. The company said it, too, is assisting with relief efforts.
With three cement import terminals, two of which are located in the Port-au-Prince area, and one in the northern town of Cape Haitian, Cemex is among the major cement suppliers in Haiti, Perez said.
"One of the terminals remains operating and with the help of Cemex in the Dominican Republic and its other operations in the region, we will be able to maintain supply of cement into Haiti and as such contribute to satisfying the country's requirements," Perez added.
Locals Should Benefit
If there are profits to be made rebuilding Haiti, the bulk of them should go to businesses in Haiti, said Bryan Schaaf, founder of Haiti Innovation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that consults to donors interested in helping the impoverished nation. "Foreign companies should be partnering with locals on all of this stuff," said Schaaf, who spent three years as a Peace Corp volunteer in Haiti.
He agreed that a massive amount of money will pour into Haiti but also pointed out that large-scale reconstruction is not yet a priority with so many basic needs, such as search and rescue, food, water, health care, still being addressed.
Make no mistake, though, rebuilding funds will be coming. The Inter-American Development Bank has authorized the Haitian government to tap $90 million in funds earmarked for pre-earthquake development projects in Haiti for use in priority infrastructure projects. The Canadian government, in conjunction with its Canadian International Development Agency, historically one of the largest providers of aid to Haiti, is set to convene a meeting next week in Montreal aimed at coordinating efforts by governments and donor agencies, including the United Nations and its two main lending entities, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the French Development Agency and a host of other organizations.
A decade ago, when Hurricane Mitch destroyed large parts of Central America, the Inter-American Development Bank helped coordinate a global relief effort that ultimately totaled $9 billion in aid, grants, debt relief and low interest loans.
Water Suppliers Should Benefit
Some of the other companies that could end up getting even a portion of money earmarked for Haiti's reconstruction include the Cayman Islands-based company Consolidated Water, which makes fresh water through reverse osmosis technology, and Miami-based Watsco, a major distributor of air conditioners, Herzfeld said.
His fund, the Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, was started 15 years ago and has been geared toward benefiting from what he sees as the inevitable opening up of Cuba. In fact, the closed-end fund's shares trade on the Nasdaq under the symbol CUBA.
"It seems hard to believe now but, like in Cuba, tourism is going to be a big part of Haiti's economic future," Herzfeld said.
That Haiti has any economic future might seem hard to envision; so is the idea of any company profiting from the misery there. The two concepts, nonetheless, remain unavoidably linked.