At first glance, you wouldn’t think much has changed in Haiti since an unprecedented tremor ravaged Port-au-Prince five months ago.
“There are piles of rubble everywhere and some parts of Port-au-Prince look like Armageddon,” said American Red Cross spokeswoman Julie Sell with a heavy sigh. She added, “People who work in the humanitarian and disaster relief field for years have said this is possibly the worst destruction of an urban area since World War II.”
But despite the ragged landscape, aid workers and officials say, the country is steadily eking out a recovery that some hope will make the northern hemisphere’s poorest country better than it was before the disaster.
“We’ve had good successes,” said Paul Weisenfeld, coordinator of USAID’s Haiti Task Team. “The response has been robust and extensive and comprehensive but it’s a challenge when you’re working with numbers that big.”
Weisenfeld said the earthquake has “unfortunately, given us a lot of records”: largest number of urban displaced people ever with more than 2 million displaced Haitians living in settlements, of which 1.7 million are in Port-au-Prince; largest distribution of temporary shelters; largest distribution of food and water; 1 million and counting persons vaccinated and more.
Despite the overwhelming needs and the challenging numbers, aid workers aver, Haitians now have 50 percent more potable water than before the earthquake; the spread of disease – which many feared could cause a second wave of disaster – has been largely contained and the Haitian government is regaining its footing.
With 10 percent of the country’s civil service killed and the presidential palace and other government buildings destroyed, the Haitian government’s “ability to step up and take a leadership role in responding to the disaster was severely affected,” said Weisenfeld. “[But] over time we’ve seen them step up and play an increasing role,” aided by support from USAID and other groups that have provided staff, hardware, computers and other capacity-building resources.
Taking a note from Indonesia’s handling of the aftermath of the tsunami, the government created the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, which is heading the recovery effort – taking over from the United Nations, which had initially led the emergency response meetings.
Moving past the emergency phase, however, is proving to be a challenge. And the largest obstacle is the 20-25 million cubic yards of debris – 20-25 times the rubble created by the destruction of New York’s twin towers – that give testament to the worse earthquake Haiti has seen in 200 years.
“Now we’re in a more challenging time because of land ownership and other issues that make it more difficult to achieve more sustainable solutions” such as the switch from temporary to transitional housing, Sell said.
“To build these transitional shelters, land has to become available,” she added. “[But] every spare patch of land is covered. It’s hard to go one block without seeing damaged buildings and people in shelters.”
On June 9, the Haitian government approved population relocations to areas outside the capital. But while nongovernmental organizations have grants to help support families that make the move, many are unwilling to move from the city, perhaps because of a lack of jobs and other resources elsewhere.
“The worldwide experience is people will go and stay where there are jobs or services so ultimately supporting people is going to rely on reactivating the economy and helping the government provide the basic services – health care, education, water – that people need to prosper,” Weisenfeld said.
Building that infrastructure in the short term – and sustaining the gains made in the country’s recovery – will likely be severely thwarted by the approaching hurricane season, however.
With hundreds of thousands of people huddled together in tent villages perched precariously on hillsides and other unstable land likely to turn to mud when it rains, the potential for catastrophe is exponential. Sell said the Red Cross and other NGOs have hired Haitians to assist in hurricane emergency preparations such as: digging ditches to channel water down hillsides, shoring up hillsides with sandbags, leveling land, laying gravel, teaching first aid, and marking emergency evacuation routes. And, in areas where mitigation efforts prove futile, residents have been relocated, Weisenfeld added.
The humanitarian network has also pre-positioned supplies of water, food, blankets, medical supplies and other necessities at various sites throughout the country.
This extended “emergency response phase” – which the UN said could continue for the next 12 to 18 months – is raising some concern with the pace of sustainable rebuilding efforts in Haiti.
“I think the worry we have is people adjust to their situation,” Weisenfeld said. “We have to move aggressively; we don’t want Haitians to get used to living in these conditions.