Haitians Wait in Tents for a Recovery that has Still Barely Begun
Billions were promised after the January earthquake. Six months on, little has changed
They're still bringing victims to the Grand Cimitière in Port au Prince, a few
blocks from the ruined Presidential Palace, which remains a globally
recognised symbol of a crippled nation.
But almost six months after the worst natural disaster in modern history, the
flood of new arrivals has slowed to a trickle. Oginel Pinchinat, a caretaker
who mans the main gate of the 10-acre site, reckons on having to find burial
spots for roughly a dozen new earthquake victims each day, a number he calls
a relative trifle.
"Back in January, bodies were just being dumped, everywhere," he
says. "Big trucks would pull up and leave them in piles, often a
hundred at a time. It was a mess. Now, business is slower and people have
more time to do things with dignity and respect. Even if they find an
unidentifiable body in the rubble of a building they will at least wrap it
up in a plastic sheet, and try to make sure that it gets laid to rest inside
a proper tomb."
At the height of Haiti's tragedy, a walk through the Grand Cimitière was like
a journey into hell. Corpses wrapped in bloody rags littered its pathways.
Concrete tombs had been busted open so makeshift coffins could be illegally
dumped. Clouds of flies swarmed around wheelbarrows and trailers full of
death. When I last went there, three days after the quake, the gatekeeper
was checking in fresh bodies at a rate of one every six minutes.
Today, a kind of order prevails. All the new arrivals are being properly
interred. Some broken tombs are being patched up (though others have been
smashed open by grave-robbers hoping to steal gold and silver jewellery
which, under Voodoo custom, is often left with the deceased). Proper funeral
services are now being held, albeit in a chapel that still lacks a roof and
most of its walls. The worst of the horror is over, in other words, but
things won't be returning to normal for a long time yet.
The same can be said of the entire city of Port-au-Prince, which on Monday
marks the six-month anniversary of the earthquake. Measuring 7.0 on the
Richter scale, the quake left around 300,000 of the city's inhabitants dead,
made 1.5 million people homeless, and destroyed the already shaky economy of
the western hemisphere's poorest nation. The initial shock has worn off, and
the world's attention has largely moved on. But the earthquake's terrible
footprint can still be seen almost everywhere.
Drive through town, and you'll pass homeless camps full of tents and makeshift
shelters on almost every patch of open ground. An estimated 1,300 of them
now dot the country. Look for evidence of regeneration, and you'll see that
virtually none of the country's roughly 280,000 damaged buildings have even
been properly demolished yet, let alone rebuilt. Vast piles of concrete,
steel and twisted rubble still litter almost every street.
The economy, meanwhile, remains pretty much crippled. There are no large
employers, and most Haitians, unless they are able to work as street sellers
or taxi drivers, or in other areas of casual enterprise, have no source of
income and are therefore relying on handouts. At first glance, despite the
huge sums that are supposed to have been spent getting the people of Haiti
back on their feet, much of their city and way of life looks depressingly
unchanged from six months ago.
Aid agencies warned this week they are being stretched to the limit even
maintaining this uneasy status quo. The Red Cross, one of the organisations
which, in the absence of a working government, or help from overseas
administrations or the UN, is still providing most of Haiti's clean water
and toilet facilities, said: "We are all stretched to our capacity and
simply containing a critical situation, rather than solving it."
Médicins Sans Frontières issued a report highlighting the frustration among
Haitians with the "dire reality" of their living conditions, and
the fact that billions of dollars in aid promised immediately after the
quake is nowhere to be seen. "There is a staggering gap between the
enthusiasm and promises for aiding the victims of the earthquake in the
early weeks, and the dire reality on the ground after half a year," it
Among Haiti's most vulnerable, a sense of helplessness perhaps understandably
prevails. Chery-Jean Jonas, who on Thursday afternoon was walking out of a
ravine in the Carrefour-Feuilles neighbourhood, where he once lived - but
which now resembles a giant rubbish tip - said he was resigned to living
under canvas, in a temporary refugee camp roughly a mile away, for at least
the next year, and possibly forever.
"When the earthquake struck, almost everyone who happened to be in this
valley at the time died," he said. "Afterwards, we broke down the
rubble to look for survivors, but we hardly found any. Today, a few people
are rebuilding, but most of us do not want to live in a house down there
again, even if we could afford to rebuild. It is a place of death. And in
any case, I am afraid that a new building will collapse in a quake, like the
old one did."
Faced with long-term homelessness, hundreds of thousands left Port-au-Prince
in the aftermath of the disaster and returned to the countryside, or to
smaller towns, where they are attempting to eke an existence from the land.
They hope to return, when things improve. But most of the promised help has
still not arrived. An investigation by the American news network ABC into
the 23 biggest charities working in Haiti revealed this week that just 2 per
cent of the $1.1bn (£728m) they raised has so far been released. A mere 1
per cent has been spent on relief operations.
To millions still living in Port au Prince's temporary camps, rebuilding can't
come quickly enough. And the Caribbean's hurricane season brings a more
pressing concern: in Haiti, there's no such thing as drizzle. When it rains,
it pours. If you're living under canvas, a quick shower can instantly turn
your home into a filthy puddle. A proper, tropical thunderstorm produces
flash floods, which can lead to a crisis in sanitation and outbreaks of
Some people have managed to build more permanent shelters using wood or
corrugated iron. In one such hut, in a camp in the Del Mar neighbourhood,
Emeth Thomas - who lost his home and job selling lottery tickets in January
- said he was persuaded to move to a new, more robust dwelling after a heavy
storm forced his family to spend an entire night standing up.
"We were staying under a tarpaulin, sleeping on the ground with scores of
other families. There was no privacy, and it was hopelessly over-crowded,
and when it rained, that was the worst: we would have to stay on our feet
all night long, and into the next day. We couldn't sleep at all, and the
ground just became mud. So we have built a new place to live. Initially, it
had a plastic roof, but that was incredibly hot. So now we have put one on
made from sheets of corrugated iron which were donated to us by a charity."
Like many of the homeless, Emeth, who shares his 10ft by 10ft hut with three
sisters, and three of their children, passes time watching a small
television, which he has rigged up by throwing a wire cable over a nearby
electricity wire. Despite being qualified, he has been unable to find even
casual work in the carpentry trade - a sad reminder that the process of
rebuilding has barely begun.
People hoped it wouldn't turn out like this. In January, many Haitians
wondered, at least in private, if the quake would prove to be a blessing in
disguise. It would, they thought, provide the perennial basket nation with a
chance to push the reset button and capitalise on an outpouring of public
sympathy - and billions of dollars in international aid. So far, they've
The scale of the disaster can be tough to fathom. In one recent interview,
Haiti's President, René Préval, pointed out that 25 million cubic yards of
rubble now litter the nation's narrow streets, turning them into impassible
bottlenecks. A thousand trucks, clearing constantly, would still take a
thousand days to get rid of all of it. And there aren't more than a hundred
trucks to do the job, he noted, adding: "Until we move out the rubble,
we cannot really build."
His comments illustrate not just the enormity of the disaster, but the
constraints under which Haiti's unpopular government is working. It has
almost no tax-raising powers, and lost around a third of its civil servants
in the quake. Rightly or wrongly, the government is largely helpless. Mr
Préval has conceded that his nation's fate remains in the hands of foreign
governments and the UN.
Aid agencies are, quite naturally, cautioning against pessimism. Prospery
Raymond, the Haiti country manager for Christian Aid, concedes that little
appears to have changed since January, but he said yesterday that
significant improvements have quietly been made, and that preventing the
death toll rising higher than it did in the months after the quake had been
an achievement in itself.
"Hundreds of families who were sleeping rough under tarpaulins are now
living in more robust structures which protect them from the heavy rains.
It's also important to recognise that there has been no major disease
outbreak or famine... Even in places like Japan, it takes years to rebuild
after a major earthquake. In Haiti, the infrastructure was already poor, and
many people had no safety [net] when they lost everything. Reconstruction
will take time."
But time is not a commodity that Haiti's most vulnerable necessarily have. At
a centre for malnourished children in Martissant, a slum neighbourhood of
Port-au-Prince, 22-year-old Danielle Germaine - who lost both her husband
and her livelihood selling rice and beans in the disaster - showed me her
one-year-old son Schneider, who is severely underweight and suffers from
"I am sleeping in a shelter, under tarpaulin, but it is terrible for my
baby's health. He has a constant fever. I saw a doctor recently and he said
there was nothing I could do. It's because of the conditions there: it's
terribly hot in the day and cold at night, especially when it rains. Of
course, I would like to live under a proper roof, but without help, what can
No one wants to remain dependent on handouts for ever. And despite claims that
it's hard to make a difference, small fixes do often work. On a walk through
the Carrefour district, I met Messias Evans, an earthquake victim who, with
nine other families, was recently loaned roughly $1,000 by a Haitian charity
called Aprosifa to build and stock a pharmacy. His concrete shack is now
selling supplies of cough medicine, fever cures and a product called
Appetivit Plus, a food supplement for malnourished people.
"From this, everyone benefits. Nine families have somewhere to make a
living from. The local community gets its pharmacy. Without this small
amount of money, we would not have been able to get started in business,
because we had no way of getting stock. Now we have it, we are free to go on
improving our lives." His store is making a profit of 500 gourdes a day
- roughly £10. Like the rest of Haiti's stuttering rebuilding effort, it may
not be a lot; but it's a start.
The Haiti earthquake in numbers
70% of Haitians lived on less than £1.30 a day before the quake
300,000 people were killed in the earthquake
1.5m left homeless and thousands of homes destroyed
5,000 schools were damaged or destroyed
19m cubic metres of rubble remain in Port au Prince
300 truckloads of debris and rubble are cleared every day
£7.6bn cost of rebuilding, over 5-10 years
£101m raised by the UK's disaster appeal
1 emergency toilet has been provided for every 200 survivors
1.9m people in emergency shelters
Source DEC; AP