x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A year on, 'help not fast enough' for quake-hit Haiti

Since the devastating earthquake that killed at least 250,000 people, Haiti is still struggling to recover, with most of the displaced still living in squalid, dangerous camps, a cholera epidemic and unmet promises of foreign aid.

Haitians walk along a street full of rubble in downtown Port-au-Prince on Sunday, nearly a year after an earthquake struck the island nation and killed nearly 250,000 people.
Haitians walk along a street full of rubble in downtown Port-au-Prince on Sunday, nearly a year after an earthquake struck the island nation and killed nearly 250,000 people.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // Renise Rendel folds tarpaulins and dismantles the makeshift tent that has been her home since last January, when an earthquake levelled her house and killed her brother and sister.

The temporary home she is moving to, a wood-and-metal hut raised off the ground, is only a little better. The cramped Red Cross homes have shared latrines and are designed to last only three years. The dusty humidity will be the same, but at least she won't have to worry about wind or rain.

"I can't be mad at my situation - I have to be grateful I have my health, food and a place to live," says Renise, 25, a secretary, who has been partially deaf since childhood.

"But if you look around, a lot of work still needs to be done. People are dying from cholera. There are storms and other natural disasters. And there are still so many children missing out on school.

"Help is not arriving fast enough and this generation of kids will become a liability if they're not educated and integrated into society."

The quake, which struck at 4.53pm a year ago today, killed at least 250,000 people and pushed 1.5 million more into the 1,200 shabby tarpaulin cities that sprung up throughout the ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, and the provinces. It is estimated to have cost the country $7.8 billion (Dh28.6bn).

One year on, there are few signs of the "wholesale national renewal" that the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, promised in March, when world leaders pledged $5.3bn for Haiti's first two-year phase of reconstruction.

The presidential palace and other symbols of Haitian sovereignty remain the crumpled piles of steel and concrete they were after the quake, which locals call "goudou-goudou", the sound they say the ground made during the quake.

Optimists highlight gains, such as the 240,000 Haitians clearing rubble in UN "cash-for-work" schemes or investment from Coca-Cola, Macy's and other multinationals. Such progress is the best one could expect after the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere was struck by such a calamity, they say.

Even wealthy countries struggle after massive natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina tested the United States, and the Japanese city of Kobe took more than seven years to recover from its 1995 earthquake. Officials estimate Haiti's rehabilitation in decades rather than years.

"This country was never going to be turned round in 12 months on the back of an enormous earthquake," said a UN spokesman, Nicholas Reader.

Critics point to weak leadership since the Caribbean nation was hit by the 7.0-magnitude quake. Since then the country has also endured hurricane Tomas, a cholera outbreak and election violence.

The Haitian president, Rene Preval, is criticised for being largely invisible since the country's worst disaster in two centuries, while heading a government that lost one third of its 60,000 workers and 28 of 29 ministries in the quake.

"If we had a government, I would be able to tell you what I think about it. But we don't really have one," said Mislène Ferdinand, 30, who lost her home and market stall in the quake and has lived for the past year in a cramped tarpaulin shack behind the airport.

"I don't rely on charity, I find my own way," said Mrs Ferdinand. She works as a maid and her husband does manual labour so they can buy food and pay the school fees for their three children. "We're not living well and really want to leave - there is no security here for us."

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), led by the former US president Bill Clinton and the Haitian prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, is supposed to guide Haitian officials and allocate cash to worthy schemes. But the aid group Oxfam says it is failing and needs to "cut through the quagmire of indecision and delay".

Oxfam's report, From Relief to Recovery, says "long-term recovery from the disaster has barely begun", with only a quarter of the 120,000 planned temporary homes completed. The big issue, Oxfam says, is that 95 per cent of the rubble from toppled buildings still clogs roads and would-be building sites.

The quake was followed in September by tropical storms that tore apart makeshift camps and killed another half-dozen people.

Worse still, a virulent cholera outbreak that began the following month has claimed 3,651 lives and infected thousands more. The outbreak has not peaked yet, the World Health Organisation said yesterday.

The outbreak may itself be the result of top-level bungling. The UN is probing whether the intestinal bug was introduced by a deployment of UN troops from Nepal, where this particular strain is more common.

Angry Haitians pelted UN patrols and yelled slogans blaming peacekeepers for the cholera.

Violent protests increased after the disputed presidential elections of November 28. The country remains locked in political limbo awaiting confirmation of a winner.

Development experts offer myriad explanations for Haiti's woes: gross wealth inequality, political turbulence, race rivalry and a weak government that has little experience providing for its population because foreign aid agencies have always done the work.

"That whole system of assistance has transformed Haiti into some kind of huge laboratory of experimental projects that are not delivering anything durable or sustainable," said Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian-born UN envoy. "We need to rethink how we are doing things in Haiti."

Whatever the cause, the result has been a perpetual cycle of poverty. The country ranks 149th out of 182 countries on a UN development index, with high Aids rates and a life expectancy of just 30 years. It is unable to feed its own people, more than three-quarters of whom live on less than $2 per day.

The most positive news comes from the International Organization for Migration, which counts a drop in the number of those living in camps from a peak of 1.5 million last summer to 810,000 currently.

That figure is falling by 100,000 each month, the IOM says, as tent-city dwellers leave because of forced evictions, rampant crime and fears of cholera. "The population in camps is not made of hapless individuals passively waiting for benefits. We finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel for the earthquake-affected population," said Luca Dall'Oglio, the IOM's head in Haiti. "Haitians have shown great resilience by finding their own solutions ... returning to the provinces, finding ways to repair their own homes, raising the funds to rent accommodation or staying with families and friends."

But this population shift only marks an adaptation to Haiti's post-quake reality, rather than the renaissance promised at the donor conference. On the ground, the adrenaline rush experienced after the quake has morphed into a stoical realisation that Haiti will have to dig its own way out of the rubble.

Jean-Manicia Fleurantin, 39, wants to rebuild the family home in Carrefour Feuilles, but her husband's "donkey work" is hardly going to pay the estimated $2,000 repair bill. "We're only just scraping by at the moment," she said.

Jean-Pierre Estiva, 53, a neighbour in a temporary housing scheme in Mangeoire, is angry he cannot find construction work. "We've moved in here but the status quo remains: I'm looking for work and can't find work," he said, arms folded against his chest. "At least I don't have to worry about the rain any more."

jreinl@thenational.ae