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Haiti's reconstruction phase officially begins

With dozens of black-and-white government dump trucks, excavators and other heavy equipment parked on the lawn of a crumbled presidential palace, Haitian President Rene Preval on Monday declared that the country's reconstruction has begun.

"While we're continuing to help people in the camps, we officially want to launch the reconstruction phase to allow these people to get out from underneath the tents," Preval said, adding that 100 of the CNE vehicles are being dispatched to neighborhoods to help in demolition and rubble removal. "It will not be easy and it requires a lot of resources. Before we reconstruct, we must clean up."

Preval marked the six-month anniversary of the catastrophic quake with a morning ceremony recognizing some two dozen Haitian and foreigners including Miami fire rescue volunteer Karls Noel Paul who helped in the early days.

Over at the U.N. Stabilization Mission, staffers marked the day with tears and the unveiling of a mural by eight Haitian artists that commemorated the 102 staff members killed.

In South Florida, there was good news. Federal officials announced at the Miami field office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they plan to extend the deadline for undocumented Haitian nationals living in the United States to apply for Temporary Protected Status. They also said they are reviewing the possibility of extending the benefit, which defers deportation, to those who arrived shortly after Jan. 12.

But immigration advocates remained concerned over how to legally get more Haitians still contending with the rubble-rife aftermath out of the country.

"It's something that would be a tremendous shot in the arm to the recovery of Haiti," immigration advocate Steve Forester said.

Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his office also is examining -- along with the state department -- whether to expedite visas for Haitians whose petitions for relatives in Haiti have been approved.

In Washington, President Barack Obama, meeting with Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, thanked that nation for coming to Haiti's rescue, while Cheryl Mills, chief or staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, provided a progress report . It includes providing food to the estimated 1.5 million left homeless by the quake and improvements in health care.

"There is still an enormous amount that needs to be done," Mills said.

Housing and removing rubble remain Haiti's two biggest challenges, Preval said during the ceremony that was attended by former President Bill Clinton, who co-chairs the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission.

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