Road to Recovery: Reconstructing Haiti three years after the earthquake

At St. Pierre Parish in Port-au-Prince, one of the few Catholic churches that did not collapse in the earthquake in January 2010, everyone is dressed smartly for Sunday evening Mass. People are attired comfortably in the tropical heat—93 degrees outside today—but none, not even folks who are clearly quite poor, appear careless about what they are wearing. Little girls in their Sunday best are carried into church wrapped in their fathers’ arms. The Kreyòl choir reverberates angelically throughout the church. In short, it is a Sunday evening Mass as lovely and natural as it can be in Port-au-Prince, a city of more than three million, where things indeed are edging closer to what passed for normal before the disaster that claimed somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 lives three years ago. The street life here is as vibrant as it ever was, perhaps even more vibrant, since so many are living doubled up with friends and family, waiting for the opportunity to return to a home of their own.

Just outside the church a large park is a green and airy break from the crush of small homes in the surrounding neighborhood. Just a few months ago, this park had been packed with more than 5,000 people living in a tent city, said David Alexis, the housing community infrastructure coordinator for Catholic Relief Services in Port-au-Prince. But its temporary residents have finally been relocated, and the park is, well, a park again—a place where young people stroll and children shout and play. Almost 360,000 people still live in tent cities in nearly 500 camps and informal sites scattered around Port-au-Prince. Thousands more live in transitional housing, a vast improvement over the tents but still far from a permanent solution. The figures are down considerably from the more than 1.5 million who were displaced by the earthquake, but they suggest the people of Haiti still have a long way to go to recover.

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Struggle to Normalcy

The multimillion-dollar renovation and modernization of Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport is a source of great municipal, even national, pride. But inside, at the drab duty-free lounge where passengers are killing time until their boarding call, in a section of the old airport that survived the quake, a large mirror over the snack bar is cracked into three large pieces. It has been that way, yet to be repaired, since the earthquake, a waitress explains. A handwritten sign advertising beverage options is taped across one of the cracks. While they wait for something better, the staff here are making do with what they have.

The same appeared true throughout Port-au-Prince as Jan. 12 and the third anniversary of the earthquake approached—residents make do with what they have in makeshift homes and temporary classrooms and cobbled together community services. Big plans are being realized all around them that offer the hope of substantial and lasting improvements. But for the average resident of Port-au-Prince, daily life remains a struggle, whether one lives in a home that survived the earthquake undamaged or is trapped in a “temporary” tent shelter three years after the deadly tremor.

There is virtually no neighborhood in Port-au-Prince that was not damaged by the 7.0 quake. In some neighborhoods whole blocks were leveled. On other streets and within the city’s incomprehensible, winding, residential alleys, scattered piles of rubble or crumbling cinderblock frames are testimony to the quake’s hopscotch of destruction. Throughout the city, many large buildings remain standing but uninhabited, fenced off from squatters or the merely curious. They are too unstable to be repaired, but they have not yet been demolished, reminders in cracked and crumbling concrete of the mayhem of Jan. 12, 2010.

The pattern of reconstruction in Port-au-Prince is likewise difficult to perceive. Many homeowners appear to have made a start at rebuilding, only to run out of steam, or perhaps money, halfway through the job. Some of the partially restored homes are inhabited anyway. The impact of foreign assistance is hard to discern.

Aside from a small grant from Caritas Sweden, “No one has helped us,” says the Rev. Francky Désir, pastor of Notre Dame D’Altagrace in Port-au-Prince, standing before what has become the agonizingly slow reconstruction of his parish school. Like 80 percent of school buildings in Port-au-Prince, the old school collapsed during the quake. The earthquake killed over 40,000 students and more than 1,000 teachers, caving in the National Ministry of Education and Professional Formation, which lost, in addition to key professionals, all its records.

Father Désir estimates total rebuilding costs for the school at about $1 million. The parish has raised nearly $200,000 on its own. The pace of reconstruction, Father Désir says, depends entirely on the flow of donations. After leading a tour of the skeleton of what he hopes one day will be a school for over 1,000 students, he makes a frank appeal for support to Rachel Hermes, education coordinator for Catholic Relief Services. For now she can only nod her head sympathetically.

It is hard to know the best place to invest C.R.S. resources in Haiti, she explains later: “The need here is so great.” C.R.S. maintains a dizzying array of programs in Haiti, from efforts at job and business creation, basic sanitation and long-term housing development to substantial investments in the nation’s education and health care systems. C.R.S. was first invited into Haiti in 1954. Since then its Haiti program has grown into the agency’s largest, with 693 staff and 344 local partner affiliates. “I can assure you,” Ms. Hermes says, “that however compelling this parish’s need seems, there are 100 other equally compelling” situations.

The View From the Top

On the plateau overlooking Port-au-Prince, a visitor has a breathtaking view of the busy and dusty city below. A sand-colored monolith of high walls and straining telecommunications equipment dominates the perspective. “We are a 10-minute drive from the American Embassy,” says Mr. Alexis, gesturing toward the giant facility.

The distance separating the high-security embassy from this transitional living camp in the Carradeux neighborhood of Port-Au-Prince is significantly greater, of course, than can be measured in time or space. This sprawling community of well-maintained wood and cinderblock shelters over asphalt slabs is surprisingly neat. The community has its own management committee that runs the show in the absence of any government assistance. C.R.S. helped build many of the “transitional” shelters here, replacing the tents and panel shacks from the U.S. Agency for International Development that had been erected in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

Three years later the committee members are delighted to show a visitor around their “village.” Unlike many of the shantytowns that rise along the eroded, crowded hillsides overlooking Port-au-Prince, there are no pits of smoking refuse here, no stinking, open gullies draining sewage through the streets. Trash is carried by residents to pick-up spots throughout the community before being brought to a central location for proper disposal. Latrines have been established around the community to contain run-off of human waste. All in all, the village is remarkably orderly, but it remains far from home for many who live here. They are still waiting in hope for a more permanent resolution to their personal, and the nation’s, crises.

Mr. Alexis believes he has one answer. He has a model community in mind that will set a new standard for housing in Port-au-Prince. “This is my dream to build for 7,000 people in this village,” Mr. Alexis says: 250 buildings; 2,000 two-bedroom apartments, each with a bathroom, running water and electricity; a school with 18 classrooms capable of educating thousands of students. They will be homes, he says, not unlike homes in the United States. Establishing who actually owns the land where this Caradeux community has risen up is one major hurdle. It is not the only one. To build this dream community, Mr. Alexis says, “I need money. Where that money is coming from I don’t know.”

The Money Trail

Certainly in the years since the earthquake, plenty of money has flowed from donors in the North to this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere; and flush with cash, a confusing alphabet soup of overseas nongovernmental organizations has set up shop. Haiti, in fact, is often referred to as the Republic of NGO’s. Its government structures are weak. Less than 10 percent of all relief money has been directed through the government; donors are frankly skeptical of how it will be spent. Transparency International ranks Haiti ninth from the bottom on its 2012 corruption scale. Asking average Haitians how the government has assisted them since the quake elicits either wry smiles or absolute befuddlement at the foolishness of such a question. But the lack of trust in government and the continued reliance on NGO’s has created something of a catch-22. By some estimates two-thirds of the services that should be provided by government are now delivered by NGO’s. Government institutions remain bereft of the opportunity to develop the professionalism that might help Haiti emerge from such dependence. (A United Nations policy “roadmap” promises to respond to this problem.)

Each NGO maintains the machinery of fund-raising and program-launching that has led to the raising and disbursement of more than $3 billion since the earthquake—and about $3 billion more has been pledged to Haiti’s recovery. (To put these grand figures in a little perspective, consider that in 2010, the year of the great earthquake, Americans spent almost $50 billion on their pets.)

Western donors, and even Haitians themselves, wonder where all that money has gone. Delille Antoine is the executive director of Haiti’s Episcopal Commission for Catholic Education. He says many Haitians have grown weary of the legions of NGO’s that have descended on Haiti since the earthquake.

“Where is it?” Mr. Antoine says many Haitians ask about the vast relief effort. “Can they come to a place and take a picture and show us what they have done with the money?”

“That’s probably the question I get the most,” says Darren Hercyk, C.R.S.’s newly arrived country representative for Haiti. “Has the money disappeared? Has it been wasted? Why don’t we see more [progress]?”

These are questions that have come to frustrate aid workers in Haiti. Amélie Gauthier works for Oxfam, an international relief and development agency. “Saving lives is very expensive,” she says, a note of exasperation creeping into her voice. And Oxfam, like other NGO’s, has been engaged in daily life-saving almost constantly since the quake. Before Hurricane Sandy moved on to leave a better publicized trail of destruction on the U.S. eastern seaboard, for instance, it devastated Haiti’s croplands. Ms. Gauthier is already anticipating a national food crisis in a few months.

The thread by which many Haitians hang is thin, and the abyss is deep, she explains. “I know one mother who was depending on one fruit plant to [provide enough income to] pay for her child’s school tuition. Others use one or two trees to pay for seed.” Those meager investments have now been destroyed by Sandy, she says. It will be difficult and expensive to help the farmers she works with to recover from their losses.

Eighty percent of Haiti’s nearly 10 million people get by on less than $2 a day. “That was the case before the earthquake,” says Mr. Hercyk, “and of course the earthquake was an enormous setback.” Since the quake, Haiti has endured a deadly cholera epidemic—an outbreak that apparently originated with U.N. peacekeepers—and a series of major storms. “In my three months here, we’ve had two tropical storms,” says Mr. Hercyk, marveling.

Only a fortunate minority in Port-au-Prince possess even the basics: running water, sanitation, dependable electricity. For many girls as young as 7 or 8, the first chore of the day is to fetch five gallons of clean water that will be carried back to their shelters, balanced atop tiny heads, for use for drinking, cleaning and cooking throughout the day.

“A lot of money has come down here and you realize a lot of it [has been spent on] life-saving,” says Mr. Hercyk. “It’s providing shelter and emergency services, and you really cannot see the result of that work as clearly as you can see the reconstruction of a building.”

Eyeballing conditions up close, some of the apparently slow pace of the recovery is easily explained. Haiti’s infrastructure has been and is now in a sad state. Getting equipment and building materials in and out of Port-au-Prince across its many unpaved and deeply tank-trapped streets is no easy job. Once inside the city, would-be rebuilders face the daunting task of getting materials into the communities where they are needed. Most of the city’s shantytowns have blossomed across steep hillsides; the homes themselves are tightly packed together and often joined only by a path barely wide enough for one person to pass through.

The Long Road

Despite such challenges, Mr. Hercyk says C.R.S. will keep moving forward. “We have gone from life-saving to reconstruction of communities and eventually to work on development,” he says. C.R.S. has begun to focus again on long-term solutions to significant challenges in education and health care. One major commitment has been the $15 million reconstruction of Port-au-Prince’s St. François de Sales Hospital, financed jointly by the U.S. Catholic Health Association, C.R.S. and the Sur Futuro Foundation, a charity from the bordering Dominican Republic. Mr. Hercyk expects to see the 200-bed, state-of-the-art teaching facility completed by June 2014. It will be a major symbol of restoration for the nation. Still, “the road is going to be long,” says Mr. Hercyk.

In Carradeux the community committee proudly leads a visitor to a five-room schoolhouse, built by C.R.S., that has made all the difference to the village’s children. Prior to its construction, the children had been enduring class within the superheated steel confines of a fleet of decommissioned buses from the Dominican Republic. School work was frequently interrupted by the scorching Haitian sun. Many parents refused to send their children because of the classroom conditions. Now with the new, well-ventilated classrooms, enrollment is way up and more students were expected to join come January.

As the tour continues, Mireille Martino stands before her cheerful and colorful cottage and invites a visitor over with a smile to talk about conditions in the village. “We are surviving, but we hope it will be better someday, God help us,” she says. After her apartment building was destroyed in the quake, she came to the camp when it was a tent city and has “moved up” to one of the 803 C.R.S. transitional shelters here (in all, the agency built more than 10,000 T-shelters during the crisis), which she shares with her adult children. Conditions in the village, by far better than many of the other temporary communities that have emerged in Port-au-Prince, are still quite difficult, she says. “Most people are not working...but when you are a servant of the Lord,” she says, “there is always hope.

“Eventually we will find delivery,” says Ms. Martino. Her smile is broad and patient.

 

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Avec Mis Nouveau Amis, Monsieur Antoine

 

Related Video:

Haiti's Slow Recovery

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5 years 4 months ago
people might be interested to know of another Jesuit initiative in Haiti since the earthquake: showyourgoodness.com, which has raised enough money to build a school in the northern part of Haiti in cooperation with Foi et Joie, the Jesuit education initiative in Haiti. Show Your Goodness began after a tragic helicopter crash when a group of relief volunteers were supplying an emergency surgical clinic in the weeks after the earthquake. They continue to raise money for several more schools in northern Haiti. please visit the website.

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