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Twelve years later, some Haiti 2010 earthquake survivors still in makeshift homes

PORT-AU-PRINCE — On rainy days, Viervelie Louis scrambles inside her makeshift home of plywood and metal sheets to gather basins to catch the water that leaks through. Louis’ bed inevitably gets soaked. At times, so does she and her two children.

“I get cold,” said Louis, 62, of those rainy times inside her home in Rue des Collines, Port-au-Prince. “I get body aches, it really hurts. Water flows inside the house like in the streets of Port-au-Prince. 

“It breaks my heart,” Louis continued. “Especially when they say a storm is coming — I have no choice, so I have to resign myself to it [accept].”

Louis and her children, who are in their 20s, are among the scores of people still living or working in temporary structures built 12 years ago after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s capital. About 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, Haitian government officials said weeks after the earthquake.

Among the structures, meant to last temporarily until reconstruction, built are schools like Lycée Jean-Jacques Dessalines.  Such national landmarks as the National Palace and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption are still in ruin. 

This, despite Haiti receiving $13.5 billion for recovery from an array of organizations, countries and individual donors, has left most people puzzled.

How the funds were squandered happened is no mystery, however. The money was misused, experts said. Haiti’s elected officials have long been associated with embezzlement, and their inability to work together significantly hindered the recovery.  

“Haiti’s path of recovery from the 2010 earthquake was interrupted by political instability and other disasters,” said Paul Weisenfeld, executive vice president of international development at RTI International. “Natural disasters are always a tragedy layered on top of already existing tragedies, like extreme poverty.”

The recovery process should have taken about 10 years, Weisenfeld said. But that never materialized over the decade.

Meaning, while Port-au-Prince was still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s southwest region in August 2021. At least 2,189 people were killed and 52,953 homes were destroyed, with 77,006 more damaged, according to Haiti’s Civil Protection disaster management agency. Now, the struggling nation is left with the task of recovering from two earthquakes even though it failed to fix one over 12 years.

“They wasted all the money, nothing was done in the country,” said Ebens Cadet, an activist based in Port-au-Prince. “So now we have a population living in misery. There hasn’t been [much] reconstruction because the country’s leaders are not here to take care of us or of the country.”

There was a “desire to help”

Experts said the scale of the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake was indicative of a widespread desire to help, and that some progress was made.

“There were well over 100 countries involved and I think it shows the humanitarian instinct of us as human beings to help others,” Weisenfeld said. “The efforts to feed and shelter millions and remove rubble were astounding.”

Yet, the high number of countries involved, with no centralized coordination, hurt Haiti’s recovery in many ways. A unified response never surfaced during the recovery process because there were too many helping hands, Weisenfeld said. 

“If people don’t know what other people are doing and everyone has their own methodologies for collecting data and identifying gaps, you get a lot of wasted effort, a lot of duplication, because everyone’s doing their own thing,” Weisenfeld said.

To exacerbate matters, Haiti experienced a devastating cholera outbreak attributed to a sewage leak from U.N. peacekeepers who came to assist with the earthquake response. The outbreak hindered officials from carrying out the recovery plan. The following year, Haiti fell deeper into political instability after Michel Martelly was sworn in as president in May 2011. This instability led to ongoing violence, which has further delayed the recovery process, experts said.

While the embattled government was absent, non-profit organizations stepped in and built paraseismic homes, which are homes built to last during an earthquake. Some companies, such as Digicel, also built their offices using paraseismic system methods.

Residents left on their own to rebuild

With much to blame and many fingers pointing across sectors, thousands of Haitian residents remain homeless to this day. Those who were able to rebuild in some manner often could not afford to use the pricey paraseismic system recommended.

A 2013 study by Oxfam looked into the finances of Haitians to build sturdy homes. It concluded that the onus is on the government to provide sustainable, affordable housing.

Louis, the woman with the leaky tent, started to build a new home in 2018. However, since she is unemployed and has no source of steady income, she has not been able to finish the reconstruction.

“I wrote a letter to the government administration but they never answered,” Louis said. “I’m in God’s hands.”

In 2020, the government approved the Natural Risk and Disaster Management Plan to coordinate between different sectors of government, including departments, municipalities, and local entities. 

For the rebuilding process to move quicker, Haitian officials need to come up with a way to end the political instability first, he added.

“I think the attention is focused right now rightfully on resolving the political issues and getting back to a constitutional order,” Weisenfeld said. “I’m hopeful that if that happens, they can turn their attention to these key issues.”

Unlike Weisenfeld, scores of Haitians are pessimistic.

“Haiti’s government doesn’t have the interest of the people at heart,” Cadet said. “People from the government just want to enrich themselves.”

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