PETIONVILLE, Haiti — Long lines of Haitians anxiously formed around Port-au-Prince Friday, not in a bid for food, but for something just as valuable: cash from abroad.
Shoving and pushing each other, people waited in front of a heavily guarded storefront in downtown Petionville from before dawn in hope of claiming cash sent by relatives and friends through an international money transfer service.
Cash is still in short supply, but getting it and jump-starting Haiti's battered banking system are crucial to restoring normal life to the earthquake-ravaged country.
"Those who aren't underneath the rubble have to eat," said Stephane Germain, 25, who was forced to bury her sister in a bedsheet, because there was no money for a funeral. Waiting outside the C.A.M. money transfer outpost, she said she also lost her godmother, and her mother remained buried beneath debris.
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Florence St. Vil, 35, a mother of three who lined up at 3 a.m. to pick up cash, said she hadn't received any relief supplies; rather than wait for stalled distributions, she preferred to try and buy her own food.
While there has been little to buy in the first days after the disaster, cash is expected to soon reclaim its role as the lifeblood of commerce.
Haiti's commercial banks reopened branches in the provinces that weren't hit by the quake Thursday, at the direction of the central bank. And in Port-au-Prince, which suffered the bulk of the damage, they planned to reopen Saturday following extensive efforts to restore their operating systems.
Security and crowd control are a top concern, and United Nations security forces and Haiti's national police will be standing guard at bank branches.
To meet the heavy demand, the banks also plan to open on Sunday. Cash withdrawals will be limited to $2,500 temporarily to assure there is enough cash.
"People will be very eager for cash," said Pierre-Marie Boisson, economic advisor to Sogebank and chairman of SogeSol, its microfinancing division.
Money sent from family and friends abroad has long been a major force in Haiti's economy and is expected to play a greater role during restoration efforts.
Remittances to Haiti reached an estimated $1.87 billion in 2008, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. That represented about 16 percent of the country's economy. Seventy percent of the money was sent from the United States.
Haiti's central bank vault, which houses its cash, wasn't affected by the earthquake and should be able to dole out Haitian currency, known as gourdes, to supply banking operations, according to an official at the World Bank, which is monitoring Haiti's banking system.
As the banks resume operations, business leaders in Port-au-Prince also are urging businesses to open their doors. "We have to get people back to work," said Reginald Boulos, president of Port-au-Prince's chamber of commerce who said he lost at least $25 million as his supermarkets, auto dealerships and hotel were taken down in the quake.
Richard Coles, a Port-au-Prince garment factory owner, said 1,000 employees have returned to work at his business.
Normal commerce — shops and vendors selling goods — is the best antidote to black market profiteers looking to jack up prices, local business leaders said.
This week. there were fledgling signs that everyday business had started to return. Along the road from the airport to the U.S. embassy, vendors have set up small stands to sell suitcases, backpacks, empty water bottles and Haitian art, including a painting of the iconic and now nearly flattened presidential palace.
Meanwhile, international money transfer agencies, such as C.A.M, Western Union and Unitransfer have been operating on a limited basis in locations that weren't destroyed in the earthquake.
Hollywood-based Unitransfer, a large money transfer firm, said business has been booming since the company resumed sending money from the United States to Haiti Tuesday — waiving its transfer fees to assist in the relief effort.
"Right now we're having a huge volume of cash going to Haiti, since we're offering the service for free," said Jean-Marc Piquion, vice president at Unitransfer, part of Unibank, Haiti's largest commercial bank. "Our offices are very busy. A lot of people are sending money. It resembles the days in December, which is a busy month, especially at Christmas and right before New Year's."
Unitransfer had six company-owned locations operating in Port-au-Prince Thursday and expected to open a few more agent-owned locations Friday.
Because of Unitransfer relationship wih Unibank, Piquion said, the money transfer firm has been able to get hold of enough cash to meet its transactions.
But among the obstacles in receiving funds is that many Haitians lack identification and documents since their belongings were wiped out in the quake. Unitransfer and other money transfer outfits are relying on secret questions and other alternatives to verify identities. Banks, similarly, will rely on tellers knowing customers or on quizzing them on personal details.
The earthquake's impact on Haiti's commercial banks remains to be tallied, although it too is extensive.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)
Follow continuing coverage of Haiti at MiamiHerald.com