Seeking hope after catastrophe for Haiti

By Pascale Palmer
11 Jan 2013

Three years ago, on 12 January, a catastrophic earthquake shook the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, devastating Haiti.

Within minutes thousands of poorly-made homes and buildings collapsed. Nearly a quarter of a million children, women and men died. At least one million people were made homeless. Amongst the dead was the Catholic Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, most of the leadership of the UN programme, and nearly a third of the country’s civil servants.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, aid agencies from around the world mobilised, while the US government deployed large numbers of troops to support food distribution and security. Trying to haul machinery, building materials, toilets or water through a country whose roads had been destroyed or needed to be cleared of rubble, was a huge undertaking.

Three years on, all the rubble in the capital Port-au-Prince has been cleared from the streets, and the worst-hit buildings demolished. The majority of people have been moved from camps into transitional or permanent homes, and the capital is busy with life and activity. Some of the public parks, previously used as camps, have now been cleaned and tended, and returned to former glory.

To suggest times have been hard for Haitians since 2010 is an insult to what people have had to suffer. On top of the massive quake, the country has had to deal with a deadly cholera outbreak that has killed more than 7,000 people. And with both Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy hitting Haiti hard - damaging crops and increasing food insecurity - the country could be facing a devastating food crisis very soon.

Jeremie Aline, 39, is a banana farmer from Marigot, a town outside Port-au-Prince. His home and land were hit by Hurricane Sandy earlier this year.

He said: “During the hurricane, the river burst its banks and ran through the banana field. The water was higher than the house. It was flooded for three days and the river brought houses with it. The water went right over the roofs. I lost 350 banana trees. Now I have no money to buy compost to ensure the trees that are left can grow well.

“I have six children. My wife and I are worried about the future. I’m very afraid because the area is so vulnerable to natural disasters and the community is becoming more volatile because we keep asking for help from the government but nothing comes.”

In the local market near Jeremie’s home, Etienne Joseph sells fruits and vegetables. She has seven children and told how the storms affected her.

She said: “I used to have a garden where I grew things for market, but it was crushed in the storms. I now have to buy fruit and vegetables in the market and then I sell them on. It’s not possible to live on the money I earn. I used to be able to sell everything for a lot more money. Now I have no money and no real work.

“My future is dependent on being able to sell produce, but there are no bananas any more due to the storms and there are no mangoes. The future is going to be hard.”

But Haiti’s troubles didn’t start with the earthquake three years ago. It has for a long time, perhaps since independence, struggled politically, economically, and socially. In 2010 it was, and remains today, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

Before the earthquake hit, more than 70 per cent of the Haitian population lived on less than £1.50 a day, 86 per cent of the population lived in slum conditions, 30 per cent had access to tap water and 50 per cent had access to latrines. Eighty per cent of schools were private and low-quality, automatically excluding a large portion of the population. The state was not providing basic essential services such as education and health. Waste had been piling up on the streets, unemployment was endemic, and Port-au-Prince had a large number of homeless people and massive over-crowding.

So when the earthquake came, problems that were already well-established in Haiti were exacerbated a thousand-fold. And with nearly 250,000 dead, including leading figures in the Haitian government and in the UN, civil servants and NGO staff; and the loss of many medical centres and schools, the real scale of this catastrophe and the challenges to reconstruction and recovery become clearer.

In 2010, the Catholic community of England and Wales responded to CAFOD’s earthquake appeal with massive generosity. From the word go, the aid agency included Haitian expertise and knowledge in its response to the disaster, ensuring people who know the situation best were and continue to be at the heart of programmes and planning. CAFOD’s work with Caritas Haiti has helped them replace offices and equipment that were destroyed in the earthquake, and train staff to lead the recovery process. Since the earthquake, CAFOD has continued to provide major support in the water and sanitation sector, building latrines to accompany new homes as people move out of camps, rebuilding cholera units in hospitals, and teaching children in schools about the importance of good sanitation.

In Port-au-Prince, CAFOD has recently launched a project using puppets and animated films to help children learn how to protect themselves from cholera and other illnesses. It is hoped this project will be rolled out to more schools with the support of the Haitian government.

In other areas of the capital, CAFOD conducts earthquake evacuation simulations in schools to ensure children know what to do and how to stay safe in the event of another earthquake.

Last month, in the run-down area of Carrefour, at Archimede Beauvoir School, 14-year-old Pierre-Manise Andre took part in CAFOD’s evacuation drill. When the earthquake hit three years ago Pierre-Manise was trapped under the rubble of her home – with her baby sister Linouze in her arms – for two full days and nights.

She said: “We had no food and no water for those two days. Eventually I could hear people clearing away the rubble bit by bit. I held onto Linouze and she cried and cried in my arms. The thing that kept me going was that there were little air holes for us to breathe and through those I could hear people moving rubble.

“When they finally lifted the last piece of rubble to free me, I was taken to hospital and I hadn’t broken anything – it was a miracle. God saved me and he saved my sister.

“I am scared that there will be another earthquake, but the evacuation practice at the school means I will know what to do and I will be saved next time.”

Three years on, CAFOD is still working hard to support recovery in Haiti and to prepare people better for natural disasters. The permanent houses CAFOD continues to build for Haitian families are earthquake-resistant and through partners the aid agency has been up-skilling local building engineers so they have the know-how to build solid homes.

Casimir Jean Harrison, aged 90, from Duval area, outside Port-au-Prince, is waiting for his CAFOD house to be completed. At present he lives in a tin shack next to the construction site.

He said: “My previous house, before the earthquake, was made out of rocks. This building is more solid and it won’t blow over or fall down.

“When I move in I will have two bedrooms, a bathroom, a sitting room and a dining room. I have a lot of friends and they can come over and we can all sit together in my new home and talk and be happy.

“I am so happy with the new house, so excited. It is like a miracle. Thank you for my new home.”

* For more information on CAFOD’s Hungry for Change campaign calling for changes in the global food system that could help prevent food insecurity in countries like Haiti, please visit www.cafod.org.uk

This article also appears in the Catholic Herald newspaper (www.catholicherald.co.uk/).

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© Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy and Campaigns) for the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD), the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales.

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