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Haiti still mired in post-quake problems

A year after the massive earthquake, reconstruction efforts remain practically nonexistent and camps for the displaced appear to have taken on a permanence.

January 12, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman attends services in front of the cathedral in Port-au-Prince, which was among the structures destroyed by the quake last Jan. 12.
A woman attends services in front of the cathedral in Port-au-Prince, which… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Gray ribbons of fresh concrete streak the side of Clarisse Brisson's broken home, where she and her family are slowly making repairs. Inside, she reads Bible verses to sustain her. Next door, the neighbor's home is a heap of crumbled stone and rusted iron bars.

"We are just living on a daily basis, watching and waiting," Brisson said, sighing and leaning her head against a bent metal doorjamb.

"For a year."

A year ago, one of modern times' worst natural disasters struck one of modern times' poorest nations. In seconds, roughly 10% of this capital's population was killed or mortally wounded in a massive earthquake at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12.

Haiti was plunged into a catatonic state. Bodies lay in the streets, many poking halfway out from under the buildings that had crushed them. Survivors wandered, dazed or frantic, searching for spouses and children, covered in the white dust that billowed from the ruins. Screams and moans of the dying, and those seeking them, filled the night, and the earth periodically shook again and again.

Today, life of a sort has returned to Haiti. The bodies are mostly gone (though on occasion one is unearthed), and the chaos is part of the routine of survival, of scraping out a living. Traffic snarls up and down hillsides. Most children who go to school are back in classrooms, though jittery and traumatized; commerce is haphazardly brisk.

Yet virtually no major reconstruction is evident. Landmarks such as the grand Roman Catholic cathedral and the majestic presidential palace remain misshapen carcasses. Only 5% of the rubble has been cleared, according to one estimate.

The majority of the population remain jobless. And the nearly 1,200 tent encampments scattered across the city, where more than 1 million displaced people sought shelter, have taken on a deliberate permanence, much as aid workers a year ago said they feared would happen.

On Clarisse Brisson's street, an offshoot of a major commercial thoroughfare known as 36 Delmas, residents say most of the improvements are things they did themselves. The Times visited the street a few days after the quake. Frustrated residents, tired of waiting for help, had taken matters into their own hands and organized a committee to acquire food, water and medical care.

As the months passed, however, nothing really changed and no help came from the government. Eventually, the committee more or less fell apart.

"We know how Haiti is," said Brisson, retired from a factory that made baseballs, "and it's how Haiti will stay."

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, humanitarian response was so massive that agencies (many undertaking their largest and most challenging mission ever) were practically bumping into one another, creating at times a huge bottleneck of aid. The efforts nevertheless saved thousands of lives.

A year later, the slow pace of overall recovery and reconstruction is being widely criticized by outside experts and watchdog groups as Haiti's tragedies merely multiply: A cholera epidemic has infected more than 170,000 people and claimed nearly 4,000 lives, and a political crisis has left the country unable to choose its next president.

"I feel uneasy and sort of uncomfortable about what is still a disaster situation for most of the population," said Stefano Zannini, head of mission in Haiti for Doctors Without Borders, one of the largest and longest-serving aid groups in the country. "During the last year, I've heard a lot of … talking about promises, plans, strategies, money. These three, four words, you know, over and over. Promises."

In a scathing report last week, the international charity Oxfam cited a "quagmire of indecision and delay" that has paralyzed efforts to provide housing to the more than 1 million homeless and may have contributed to the cholera epidemic.

Reconstruction is also delayed because only 5% of the 20 million cubic meters of rubble generated by the quake has been removed, Oxfam said.

Oxfam and other critics blame a historically weak and dysfunctional state beset by coups, military dictatorships and a self-protecting elite; a lack of leadership from a government that also suffered heavily in the earthquake (all major government headquarters were destroyed or damaged, 30% of civil servants were killed, and President Rene Preval essentially went AWOL in the first desperate days after the disaster); and poor coordination among the myriad humanitarian agencies. Some organizations and foreign governments have also been reluctant to release money into the corrupt morass of the Haitian state and business elite.

The highly heralded reconstruction committee chaired by former President Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has also come under criticism. Formed in April to head disaster management, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission has met only four times, Zannini said.

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