PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — President Michel Martelly urged Haitians to recall the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives in a devastating earthquake three years ago, marking the disaster's anniversary Saturday with a simple ceremony.
Martelly also thanked other countries and international organizations for their help after the Jan. 12, 2010 disaster.
"Haitian people, hand in hand, we remember what has gone," Martelly said as a gigantic Haitian flag flew half-mast before him on the front lawn of the former National Palace, a pile of tangled steel reinforcement bars nearby. "Hand in hand, we're remembering, we're remembering Jan. 12."
Clad in black, several dozen senior government officials gathered where the elegant white palace had stood before it collapsed in the temblor and was later demolished. Foreign diplomats and Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, earlier named by Martelly as one of Haiti's goodwill ambassadors, were also there.
In the speech, Martelly announced a government contest seeking designs for a monument to honor those who died in the quake. He also said the government had just released a new construction code aimed at ensuring new buildings are seismically resistant but didn't provide details.
Later in the day, Martelly, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and former U.S. president Bill Clinton placed a wreath at a mass burial site north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Crosses that once spiked the makeshift grave have since vanished.
Haiti's previous presidential administration said 316,000 people were killed but no one really knows how many died. The disaster also displaced more than a million others.
Most of the rubble created by the quake has since been carted away but more than 350,000 people still live in grim displacement camps.
Many people had hoped the reconstruction effort would have made more headway by now, but progress has been stymied by political paralysis, the scale of devastation and a trickle of aid.
Jan. 12 was observed as a national holiday the last two years to remember the quake. This year, the government said the day would no longer be a holiday but called for the Haitian flag to be flown at half-mast and for nightclubs and "similar establishments" to close.
The anniversary this year has been used by Haiti observers to criticize the reconstruction process and by foreign aid groups to promote their work and raise money.
But for some Haitians, it was just another day.
"We can't remain focused on Jan. 12th," said Asaie St. Louis, a 56-year-old teacher and devout church-goer, Bible in hand. "It's passed already."