Year of the Quake

One year after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, people on the island are still struggling to recover.

After an earthquake leveled Haiti’s capital in January 2010, U.S. Catholics donated $82.6 million for emergency relief and rehabilitation in just one weekend collection.

Now, as political instability and a cholera epidemic delay plans for permanent housing, economic development and the rebuilding of Church institutions, Haiti’s Catholic bishops have joined with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to implement a plan designed to upgrade building construction, strengthen local institutions and discourage foreign-aid practices that foster a culture of dependency.

“Together we can bring about the genuine change that Haiti and its people long for,” vowed Bishop Kevin Farrell during the USCCB’s 2010 Fall General Assembly, where several committee chairmen reported on a multilevel “one Church” response to the rehabilitation of earthquake victims and a vulnerable local Church as well as the needs of Haitian immigrants in the United States.

But Bishop Farrell injected a dose of realism into his inspirational rhetoric: “As you know from the news,” he told the bishops at the Baltimore meeting, “there is an uphill road to climb.”

As earthquake victims still languish in tent camps and the rubble from collapsed buildings still clog streets in the capital, hopes that the dire effects of a natural disaster might produce social and economic transformation are slowly fading.

Critics have long argued that the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation lacks the capacity to channel the outpouring of foreign aid into productive initiatives. Much of the rehabilitation aid — accompanied by tough conditions designed to circumvent systemic corruption — has yet to be released.

Experts dispute whether foreign aid in Haiti has actually improved or worsened the status quo. Despite billions in assistance over recent decades, Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar on development issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, in an October 2010 article in Commentary magazine, said Haiti is “substantially poorer than it was half a century ago. By the hardly insignificant yardstick of income levels, the country appears to be less developed now than it was two generations before.”

That skepticism has discouraged additional support for Haiti, despite the recent loss of life and the destruction of Port-au-Prince. But rebuilding plans also have been delayed by a hotly contested presidential election and a deadly cholera epidemic, worsened by an ill-timed hurricane.

Many hoped that last November’s presidential election would signal Haiti’s commitment to democratic principles and thus boost international support for reconstruction of the capital. But after Jude Celestin, the hand-picked candidate of President Rene Preval, was declared the winner, 12 of the 19 candidates on the ballot urged the country to “mobilize” against widespread election fraud.

A cholera outbreak has only deepened social unrest. Reportedly, 2,400 have died and as many as half a million may be sickened in the months ahead. The epidemic has prompted attacks on Nepalese U.N. peacekeeping troops based in the country; some Haitians scapegoated the troops as the source of the outbreak, although that has not been proven to be true.

As the grim anniversary approached, “cautiously optimistic” might best describe the mood at Catholic Relief Services, which has sought to implement long-term priorities, like the construction of family housing.

“The earthquake emergency-relief stage is largely over. We’re beginning to transition to reconstruction,” confirmed Tom Price, a CRS spokesman. “But more than a million people are still in camps for the homeless, and we still are meeting basic needs, like sanitation and food. Now, with the cholera epidemic, we are providing soap and health education and prevention.”

CRS played a major role in the aftermath of the disaster, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, then-president of CRS, outlined the agency’s achievements during the USCCB fall meeting: 60% of the $82.6 million collected for Haiti went to CRS for humanitarian assistance and 40% to the USCCB Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America for ecclesial needs.

Within days of the disaster, CRS provided emergency medical care and hospitalization, food and basic shelter for hundreds of thousands of Haitians massed in the streets of Port-au-Prince, who were fearful of returning to their homes.

Subsequently, CRS began building “transitional shelters,” two-room wooden structures with a concrete foundation designed to withstand earthquakes. According to Price, 1,400 transitional shelters have been built. Yet, as Haiti marks the first anniversary of the earthquake, permanent building construction has little traction.

“Land was supposed to open up for new housing, but it hasn’t opened up,” Price reported. Critics blame the snafus on an incompetent local government, but whatever the cause, said Price, “CRS cannot take land and put people there.”

Instead, the agency has focused both on rubble clearance with hand-powered instruments and the building of transitional shelters in old neighborhoods that can extend support to families in crisis.

Shaina Aber, associate advocacy director for Jesuit Refugee Services, which has organized housing, health care, economic development and new schools in Haiti, echoes a growing sense of frustration.

“There has been very little movement to create an alternative living situation for people dependent on the camps,” said Aber. Plans for building permanent homes in the camps run by her agency have stalled: The landowners would not allow the necessary materials to be brought to the camps.

As Haiti’s government falters, the local Church has cautiously advanced its own plans for rebuilding Catholic institutions.

In the wake of an earthquake that killed Archbishop Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince, as well as many seminarians and religious, and destroyed the capital’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, 70 churches and numerous schools, seminaries and convents, the Church in Haiti has struggled to regain its equilibrium.

Deliberations with a variety of Catholic conferences from around the world have produced a new framework designed to incorporate the lessons learned from past relief and reconstruction campaigns and to curb the distorting effects of foreign assistance on an impoverished Church and nation.

At a time when some Haitian physicians blame international aid groups — like Doctors Without Borders — for providing free health care that undermines the financial stability of local hospitals, the Haitian bishops issued “Partners in Mission: Guidelines for Solidarity and ‘Twinning’ Relationships,” a document that aims to reorient foreign aid and improve collaboration between international agencies and Haitians.

“The goal of any partnership should lead to sustainable development, according to the needs of the local Church, and should be designed to reduce the need for outside help,” stated “Partners in Mission.” The document also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of assistance after the earthquake and in previous decades — an acknowledgment of Haiti’s legacy of desperate need.

During the USCCB’s November meeting, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, a member of the Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America and chairman of the Haiti Advisory Group, which will distribute millions of dollars for church reconstruction, underscored a new clarity of purpose.

Archbishop Wenski said the Haiti Advisory Group had worked with the local hierarchy to create a “reliable mechanism” for improving construction standards and fostering respectful dialogue between the Haitian Catholic hierarchy and foreign Catholic leaders and Church-run relief agencies.

An Architectural and Engineering Unit — called PROCHE (which in French means “close by”) — will operate within the Haiti Bishops’ Conference to review and supervise “church reconstruction according to accepted standards,” said Archbishop Wenski. The bulk of the collection funds designated for church reconstruction will be channeled through PROCHE.

In Haiti, many successful institutions, which receive outside funding from religious and secular groups, have a track record of effective collaboration between Haitians and foreign donors and volunteers. But even they acknowledge that 2010 was an especially challenging year, creating new fissures in long-term partnerships.

At Hopital Sacre Coeur, a Haitian-led hospital located in the northern town of Milot, the surge of earthquake victims in the wake of the disaster, followed by a corresponding influx of volunteer U.S. physicians with experience in trauma care and orthopedics, upended the routine.

During the frantic weeks following the earthquake, the 74-bed hospital mushroomed to 400 beds, and 60 medical volunteers manned triage units and multiple operating rooms for 15-hour stretches.

“Out of necessity we created two hospitals under one roof,” recalled Dr. Peter Kelly, president of the Massachusetts-based CRUDEM Foundation, which funds Hopital Sacre Coeur.

“The inpatients in the regular hospital and the usual clinic patients were taken care of by the Haitian physicians and nurses,” Kelly noted. “The earthquake victims were treated in [triage centers at] the schools and then in the tents by the volunteers.” The bifurcated arrangement “worked during the acute phase,” he said, “but we were anxious to get back to one hospital.”

Then, this fall, when the cholera epidemic brought another flood of patients to Sacre Coeur, Haitian personnel showed that they learned from the earlier disaster response. They were prepared to manage the surge of patients; they were also determined, said Kelly, to prevent another breach of Sacre Coeur’s collaborative culture.

That story underscores the valuable legacy of long-term institutions like Hopital Sacre Coeur, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Directed by Haitians, it employs a growing staff of full-time employees. But it benefits from financial assistance, oversight and high-level training provided by committed volunteer physicians from the United States, many of whom are American members of the Order of Malta.

Experts on Haiti offer no rosy predictions for a complete resolution of the country’s systemic political and economic problems. But the local Church and its allies are working to prove the naysayers wrong. Nobody expects it will be easy.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland, and traveled to Haiti in 2010.