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Six months after earthquake, Haiti still waits for recovery

By Guy Adams

At the height of Haiti's earthquake tragedy six months ago, a walk through the Grand Cimitière in Port au Prince 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 said.

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 contagious disease.

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 been disappointed.

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 nightly fever.

"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 you do?"

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.

Source: Independent

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