Recovery progress slow in Haiti six months after powerful quake

A man prays in a cemetery affected by the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (CNS/Reuters)

Six months since a powerful earthquake leveled a fifth of the Haitian geography and destroyed 80 percent of the country’s economy, the tent camps that sprouted around the capital of Port-au-Prince remain filled with homeless people wondering how much longer their plight will continue.

No one has an answer. Not the Haitian government. Not the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission co-chaired by Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti. Not the United Nations under which nations pledged $5.3 billion in aid this year and next (but with only $55 million delivered thus far). Not any of the relief agencies which at times struggle with the Haitian government over priorities.

Still, the Haitian people remain patient.

Some have organized leadership councils in the camps to advocate for housing, security, medical care, sanitation and education.

The more fortunate moved back into homes that survived the quake.

Even so, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA said progress is slow and estimates that more than 1 million people remain homeless in 1,342 camps around Port-au-Prince and are vulnerable to tropical rainstorms and hurricanes.

In a July 11 press release, Jesuit Father Kenneth Gavin, director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, called for more involvement of camp residents in the delivery of aid. He also said aid must be distributed outside of the camps “so that moving to a camp is not the only way for people to receive minimal food, water and livelihood assistance.”

Safety, especially for women, is a growing concern. Women are become increasingly vulnerable to sexual assault. However, the Haitian National Police — numbering 7,000 nationwide — hardly has the manpower to keep order.

Meanwhile, debris removal is painstakingly slow. Writing in The New York Times, Reginald DesRoches, Ozlem Ergun and Julie Swann, all engineers on the faculty of the Georgia Institute of Technology, estimated that 20 million to 25 million cubic yards of debris clog streets, sidewalks, yards and canals in the capital. That’s enough to fill five Louisiana Superdomes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ debris management plan says it would take a dump truck with a 20-cubic-yard bed 1,000 days to clear the debris, if it carried 1,000 loads a day. However, with just 300 trucks scattered throughout the earthquake zone, the Georgia engineers estimate it could take 20 years to clear the rubble at the current pace.

Despite the difficulties, successes are mounting. Through May 31, Catholic Relief Services distributed food to 900,000 people and continues to provide food to about 100,000 children in more than 270 schools and 100 orphanages and child-care centers. Emergency shelter materials have been given to more than 114,000 people while water and sanitation services benefit thousands more. CRS has employed 6,000 people to clear drainage canals or dig new drainage channels to funnel away water during a storm.

Agencies such as CRS are developing long-term plans to address Haiti’s needs. One such effort finds CRS fabricating 8,000 transitional shelters made of wood and built on strong foundations. CARE plans 1,000 units by the end of the year.

Progress in Haiti always has been slow. A disaster of such magnitude would pose huge challenges for even the most developed country.

Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, told Catholic News Service in June the earthquake could have a silver lining in that it is forcing the Haitian government to rethink how the country can be redeveloped with partners around the world.

“I don’t believe the government is going to develop Haiti,” he said. “Government cannot do that. Government is there to prepare the infrastructure and provide security. But I expect the private investment and especially investors coming from abroad and the Haitian Diaspora to come in.”

For another account of the situation in Haiti, see the recent Tennessee Register piece by writer Theresa Laurence.

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