Will Haiti Still Look Like This in a Year?

Reconstruction is painfully slow. And the cholera epidemic is still spreading relentlessly.

HOW LONG, O LORD? A woman prays in front of the destroyed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 12, as Haitians marked the first anniversary of the earthquake that flattened much of the capital.
HOW LONG, O LORD? A woman prays in front of the destroyed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 12, as Haitians marked the first anniversary of the earthquake that flattened much of the capital. (photo: CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — During the week of the first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, it was difficult to tell that the disaster struck the country one year ago.

While the streets of Port-au-Prince have been mostly cleared of rubble left by the magnitude 7.0 quake that killed some 200,000 Haitians, block after block of the city is ruined. There is almost no reconstruction under way, or even removal of imploded buildings and toppled utility poles.

The roads of Port-au-Prince are a mind-bending maze of crater-sized holes and mounds of garbage, making them nearly impassible to any vehicle except four-wheel drive trucks, SUVs or the large, white United Nations transports.

Islanders have been battling an outbreak of cholera in the wake of the disaster, apparently with little success. The World Health Organization said last week that the epidemic, which has already claimed at least 3,600 lives, has not yet reached its peak.

Considering the lack of progress over the past 12 months, it is understandable that Haitians are confused and even discouraged by what they see.

Nearly one and a half million Haitians lost their homes to the quake and are now, like 23-year-old Jen-Baptist and her 16-day-old baby girl Malika, crammed into innumerable tent- and makeshift-shelter settlements found everywhere in Port-au-Prince.

Sitting outside her wood-framed tarp shelter across the street from the imploded National Palace, her heat-exhausted baby sprawling on her lap, Jen-Baptist said that when her home was destroyed in the quake, she was expecting the government to act, to do something.

“We have been expecting to be moved back to our homes, have them rebuilt, but since last year, we have not seen anything,” she said.

Jen-Baptist is not only unsure about what her government is doing, but even where the government is. Haiti’s president, René Préval, is almost never seen in public and only rarely heard over the radio.

The sense that the Haitian government is missing in action is not limited to the poor of Haiti’s tent cities. Over dinner at Haiti’s upscale Karibe Hotel (which hosted President Bill Clinton during the anniversary of the quake), Patricia, who did not want to give her last name, fumed, “Where is the government? What are they doing?”

Patricia and her sister Christine own a tile installation company, located near the airport in Port-au-Prince, and remember how, in the days following the quake, government officials could be seen fleeing the country in private planes.

“The only thing the government is doing is making the situation worse,” she said. “They talk about ‘unity’ and ‘working together,’ but they act like it is everyone for themselves.”

‘We Cannot Expect Magic’

Stepping in to do what the Haitian government can’t or won’t do are some 3,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing food, water, shelter and medical care for millions of Haitians.

If not administered correctly, many of these organizations can actually do more harm than good by adding to the confusion and clog of paperwork that is Haiti’s inept government.

The genuinely effective NGOs are those like Food for the Poor and Catholic Relief Services, which understand Haiti and understand that fixing it is more like a long, drawn-out game of chess and less like a race to put out a fire. While poverty and homelessness in Haiti are extremely problematic, they are ultimately symptoms of larger, systemic problems.

“Let us not forget that Haiti is an underdeveloped country,” said Kareen Dolce, executive director of Food for the Poor in Haiti. As one of the largest international relief organization in the United States, Food for the Poor has distributed more than $200 million worth of food and aid in Haiti in the year following the quake, and it has received a four-star rating for its work, the highest rating from Charity Navigator, the United States’ most used evaluator of charities.

Sitting behind a large wooden desk and nursing a bandaged right wrist injured by repetitive stress, Dolce acknowledged that, sadly, fixing Haiti is a process that will span not a year, or even two, but generations.

“I cry when I think about all of the children who are sleeping outside now in January, Haiti’s coldest month,” she said. “But the reality is: As an undeveloped country, we lack infrastructure, trucks, all the things needed to move resources around. We were a poor country before the earthquake, and the process of building Haiti will extend well beyond the earthquake. We cannot expect magic.”

Though taking the long view towards relief, Food for the Poor understands that immediate help is still part of the picture of a healed and whole Haiti.

“If you do not have food to eat or a roof over your head,” said Clement Belizaire, a native Haitian and project director for Food for the Poor in Haiti, “it is very hard to think about other things like infrastructure development or political reform in your country.”

Walking through a busy distribution warehouse full of beans, rice and supplies, Belizaire reflected, with a completely straight face, on Food for the Poor’s ultimate aim:

“Our long-term goal is to not exist,” he said. “We want to impact Haitian society so much that there will be no need for Food for the Poor.”

Another key ingredient to effective relief in Haiti is the ability to operate over decades and still be flexible and adaptable to the country’s immediate needs. CRS fits this model to a T.

“Catholic Relief Services has been in Haiti for over 50 years,” said Luke King, CRS country representative for Haiti.

Founded in 1943 by the U.S. Catholic Bishops as a response to the European refugee crisis of World War II, CRS serves some 130 million people in more than 90 countries worldwide. CRS is consistently named among the American Institute of Philanthropy’s top charities for the use of a majority of its funds toward relief.

King explained how CRS’ ability to adapt quickly has kept it in the game of successful relief in Haiti. “Prior to the earthquake we were mainly a rural agency,” he said, “but since [then] we have shifted our focus to urban zones, concentrating on shelter and employment.”

Employment, especially long-term employment, is key to Haiti’s recovery, explained Melissa Kreek, a CRS program manager in Haiti.

Difficult to Make Plans

Walking through a temporary housing settlement being built by CRS (called Terrain Toto, so named after the Haitian benefactor who supplied the land for the settlement), Kreek talked over the sound of hammers about the goals of the project that will, by April, contain 800 temporary shelters, small houses made of plywood with two rooms and measuring roughly 200 square feet.

“We have land rights here at Terrain Toto that allow the residents to stay for free until April of 2012,” he said. “At that time, they will be given the choice of remaining here and paying rent or taking the material of their shelter and moving elsewhere. The problem is that, when we ask the residents about what they plan to do at that time, most respond with, ‘We will see what we will do when the time arrives.’ The reality is that, in another year and four months, if we don’t help the household do some savings, build up a fund, we will be right back at square one when that time arrives to pay rent or find another place to establish their home.”

To impact the employment problem, CRS plans to soon begin a small business and recapitalization project, an initiative that will teach Haitians how to budget, open a bank account and develop a basic business plan, Kreek explained. Those who complete the program will be eligible for a start-up grant designed to help them launch a sustainable business, one with which they can support their family and develop the infrastructure of Haiti.

Without the long-term vision and work of organizations like Food for the Poor and CRS, next year’s anniversary of the quake is likely to be as bleak as this year’s. Or, as Frantz Pervil, a translator for Food for the Poor, said as he pointed out the windshield of a four-wheeler as he bounced along a street in Port-au-Prince, “In Haiti, you should never say, ‘It can’t get worse,’ because it most certainly can.”

Register correspondent Jeff Gardner filed this report from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.