Haiti: Six months later
Thursday, July 08, 2010
By Chris Herlinger
Port-au-Prince, Haiti – No one said responding to the aftermath of Haiti's devastating 12 January earthquake would be easy.
They were right.
As humanitarian workers of ACT Alliance freely acknowledge, the continuing work of repairing, rebuilding and rehabilitating Haiti in the first six months since the earthquake has been marked by numerous obstacles, significant problems and huge challenges.
"If you look at the numbers of those we have served, it is impressive," said Sheyla Marie Durandisse, Port-au-Prince-based emergency response coordinator for the Lutheran World Federation, one of the members of an alliance that has provided assistance to more than 341,000 persons. "But compared to the continued needs, you just see challenge after challenge."
Durandisse's colleague, emergency deputy Jean Denis Hilaire, was even more stark in his assessment. "It's like a drop of water in the bucket," he said. "There is still so much to do."
The most glaring problems: what to do with the tens of thousands of people living in tent cities, the need to relocate them and to rebuild houses. Also of concern: settling tricky disputes over affected land and property and the seemingly endless task of removing rubble and debris.
Fueling all of these worries is the perception by many that the Haitian government has not moved quickly enough to resolve these problems – though others argue that criticism of a weakened government ill-serves the efforts to assist earthquake survivors.
"The biggest challenge that we are facing now is ensuring that everyone has a safe and sustainable place to live," said Prospery Raymond, country manager for ACT Alliance member Christian Aid. "There is not enough land currently available to build permanent houses for everyone who needs them. The Haitian government needs to address that issue as a matter of urgency."
At the same time, "international and local NGOs must improve their level of co-ordination and collaboration with the state," Raymond said. "Now that six months have passed there is no longer any excuse for not working effectively together."
Working together ultimately means helping improve conditions for the tens of thousands living in Haiti's numerous displacement camps.
It says something of the fortitude and resilience of Haitians that at the St. Thérèse camp in Port-au-Prince, Yvan Chevalier, a member of the camp's management committee, described conditions in his camp of more than 4,300 persons as "stable."
True, on a recent day, a group of children kicked around a soccer ball for an impromptu game. But any sense of stability is likely to be short-lived, Chevalier said. "More people are expected here," he said, shaking his head, because another nearby camp is closing down.
Life within the camps themselves is, to be charitable, crimped, tense and uneasy. Residents must deal with overwhelmingly crowded conditions, crime and, in the case of women, continued threats of sexual violence.
Rains that are a normal part of Haiti's rainy season are worsening conditions in the camps, and there are continuing fears about how the camps will fare as the Atlantic hurricane season continues. At the St. Thérèse camp, where LWF has distributed humanitarian items such as health kits, residents have constructed boardwalks and small moats, as well as fortified their tent areas with stones and concrete, to protect against the rains.
"People want a solution," said Durandisse. "They want a normal life."
Trauma also remains an issue. "January 12th left us with so many problems," said the Rev. Kerwin Delicat, an Episcopal priest and the principal of the Sainte Croix School in Léogâne, which now is operating in tents provided as part of the ACT Alliance response.
"While trauma has decreased among some people, for others, there has been no improvement at all," he said. "People are still traumatized. I see it in the daily life of the people. They are very nervous." Tens of thousands cope with the difficulty of adjusting to the realities of lost family members or of suffering physical handicaps or mental problems.
Trauma has done more than simply exacerbate problems that existed in Haiti before the earthquake – problems ranging from poverty to hunger, from over-crowdedness in Port-au-Prince to poor infrastructure. These long-standing social ills are simply now fully exposed, as if stripped bare in the devastation of the earthquake.
"We are all frustrated by the apparent lack of speedy recovery for Haiti," said Aaron Tate, the Haiti earthquake response coordinator for ACT member Church World Service, noting that there "were a lot of dreams early on that this was an opportunity to build a 'new Haiti' better than the old Haiti. But the reality is that with such devastation, it is an incredible effort just to rebuild at all."
Tate said that a key commitment by ACT members – of empowering Haitians to rebuild Haiti – remains firm, but still poses a challenge.
"Our Haitian partners faced great loss themselves; they lost buildings, family members, their own homes. Still, they are working hard and going far beyond what we could reasonably expect of them to provide emergency relief and recovery, but they do so against great odds."
"It seems that the largest and most critical issues, especially housing in Port-au-Prince, have been too big for anyone to address," he said. "But on a smaller scale, you do see successes by NGOs like ACT Alliance members."
You do. While the frustrations and challenges posed in Haiti are perhaps most easily witnessed in Port-au-Prince, where as many as a third of the nation's nearly 10-million people lived before the calamity, progress is evident in pockets of the capital, as well as in other cities affected by quake.
In the coastal city of Jacmel, progress and energy are palpable. There, ACT member Diakonie Katastrofenhilfe is rehabilitating 300 houses, one of them being the home of Rosemond Jean Louis, 48, and his family of four. The work included repairs to the structure's porch and rear, as well as a new roof. "I feel more secure now," Louis said of the home in which he has always lived.
Elsewhere in Jacmel, other Diakonie-sponsored house repairs are underway. Sainnac St. Fleur, a construction foreman, said residents of Jacmel are united in purpose and working hard to see the one-time French colonial city up and repaired. "What we're doing is very important," St. Fleur said. "We have many, many people in need."
The limited successes in Jacmel, of course, have to be seen in the context of the calamity of 12 January and the weight of history that has produced the problems of food insecurity, poverty, lack of adequate water and housing.
Sylvia Raulo, outgoing country representative for the Lutheran World Federation in Haiti and incoming country representative in Haiti for Norwegian Church Aid, another ACT Alliance member, said the achievements of the international humanitarian community in the first six months since 12 January are perhaps the minimum that could be hoped for -- "the things we haven't heard about. There were not political riots, there was not a major food crisis, there was no major outbreak of major diseases."
"It's an achievement that we've managed to get the horror scenarios out of the picture," she said. "So far, so good."
(This is the first of a series of stories by ACT communicator Chris Herlinger that will appear in coming weeks focusing on the first six months of ACT Alliance recovery work in Haiti.)
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