Haiti — surviving the earthquake, and moving on

Madeline revisits the remains of the Centre d'Action Pour Le Development center in Carrefour Failles where five of her friends were killed. Plan has been supporting CAD, which provides a home to street children and orphans. Madeline was injured by falling masonry when the CAD building in Port-au-Prince collapsed. Photo by: Plan International

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was one man, and a popular dinner table icebreaker is often a conversation about one’s whereabouts when he was killed. On Jan. 12, 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti and by Jan. 24, at least 50 further aftershocks had been recorded.

An estimated 3.5 million people were affected by the quake, at least 100,000 people — and perhaps as many as 300,000, depending on which estimate you believe — are thought to have died. Everyone in Haiti on that dark day remembers where they were.

To test the nation further, October 2010 saw a cholera outbreak that has, to date, killed an estimated 8,562 people and infected about 700,000 others. It was the first cholera outbreak in Haiti in more than 100 years. It would have been ill-prepared to respond even without the earthquake. Tropical storms Isaac and Sandy also hit the country, in August and October 2012, respectively, hampering reconstruction, causing more death and leaving large parts of the country under water.

Five years after the quake, however, the landscape has changed. That’s not to say that one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere now looks like Dubai but, after more than three years of relatively stable government, there is a difference.

Gone is most of the estimated 19 million cubic meters of rubble generated by the earthquake. More than 1 million people made homeless by the quake — some 10 percent of the country’s entire population — have been rehoused after living in camps since the earthquake. Roads, especially in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, have been repaired and many paved for the first time. Damaged buildings have been rebuilt and small businesses have multiplied. Several international-standard hotels have been constructed as have a couple of large supermarkets.

The collapse of the education system, with about half the schools in the country being affected by the earthquake, has been reversed and today, there are more children in school, at least at the primary school level, than ever before.

Of course the Haitian government as well as huge amounts of cash, foreign donors, an alphabet soup of U.N. agencies and international nongovernmental organizations plus a cacophony of other aid groups have contributed to the recovery.

But, as could be argued is always the case in such times of crisis, it is ordinary people who proved themselves extraordinary. Haitian youth were the first to respond in the aftermath of the earthquake. Organizing themselves quickly, they were digging people out of the rubble and searching for medical help almost immediately. Haitian families whose homes were intact invited other families to shelter in their houses and courtyards, providing mattresses, food and shelter. As women organized in their neighborhoods to distribute any relief supplies they had to the needy, so men provided security for them. The roll call of local heroes is long.

But challenges remain. Haiti has suffered from appalling — and often brutal — governance for decades and many Haitians have voted with their feet, leaving the country to seek better prospects elsewhere. In the past four years, some 80 percent of the staff in my office with babies chose to deliver them in the United States or Canada — not a comment per se on the Haitian health services but a move to guarantee their children an alternative nationality and better prospects in the future, just in case. The country remains poor, its education system fragile, health care expensive and unemployment high. The government’s mantra is that “Haiti is open for business,” and indeed it is, but services are poor — especially electricity supplies — with some main and many feeder roads in poor condition, which impacts negatively on a largely agricultural economy.

One gain from the earthquake has been the end of the state-run fixed telephone system and the introduction of mobile technology, which is popular and widespread. The chattering classes are here in Haiti, not just in the parlors of the Western world!

The biggest challenge remains governance, though, and the need to build trust in the workings of government. In a world where faith in politicians is at an all-time low, Haiti faces another uphill struggle.

But Haiti survives and its people move on. Let’s not forget this beautiful country has a compelling history. In 1804, it became the first independent black republic in the world — managing at different times, at the height of colonialism, to throw out invading forces from France, Britain and Spain — and the stones of the struggle are still here for everyone to see. A visit to the Citadelle, a huge fortress built after independence and completed in 1820 in the north of the country, in case the French came back to exact revenge — basically the nuclear deterrent of its day — is tangible evidence of this history and a testament to the character of the Haitian people.

When I go back home to the small village in the United Kingdom my family lives in, I’m often approached by people who, with pained looks on their faces, ask how things are in Haiti these days. My stock reply now is that they should realize that Haiti is a Caribbean island and that many North American and European holiday-makers pay good money to spend a week or two viewing and learning about Haiti’s history, admiring the spectacular scenery and soaking up the sunshine on the beaches.

All these attributes and a people used to dealing with adversity. There’s hope!

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About the author

  • John chaloner lpr

    John Chaloner

    John Chaloner is the country director of Plan International in Haiti. He has been working in the development sector since 1974, firstly in teaching in East and West Africa and then in development programming and administration in the U.K., Sudan and the Pacific. He started working for Plan in 1990.