Coping with Haiti’s long-term post-quake problems

    Last year’s Haitian earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left more than a million homeless. A hurricane, a cholera epidemic, and fraudulent elections followed. Billions of dollars in aid poured in. WHYY’s Susan Phillips has this first report in a week-long series on how the country is coping.

    It was just over a year ago, when we all heard the news that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Carribean centered near Haiti.

    People across the country responded. A star-powered telethon raised $57 million dollars in one night. Two months after the earthquake Presidents Clinton and Bush visited Haiti, and a UN conference pledged $10 billion to rebuild Haiti.

    But a year later, why do one million people still live in tents? How are those who lost limbs in the earthquake adapting? How is the population handling the trauma on an emotional level? What are Haitians doing for themselves? And has the money been spent well?

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    From the air, Haiti’s capital Port au Prince looks like a tent city.

    Some tents are nothing more than tarps and scavenged metal stretched over branches. Others bear the names of foreign government agencies like USAID. Still others have symbols of non-governmental organizations — sometimes called N-G-O’s — like the Red Cross, which spent some of the telethon money.

    The aid groups poured in after the earthquake. Many residents praise their assistance with healthcare, clean water and food. In fact, because of the aid — the camp-dwellers are often better off than those who continue to live in areas of the city less affected by the earthquake.

    Catelaine Silouen lives in Cite Soleil with four of her children. She pays about $12 dollars a month to live in one of the largest slums in the western hemisphere. Her home has two rooms and a dirt floor.

    She lost a son and her husband in the earthquake. The house she lived in before the earthquake is not much different than the one she lives in now. And as a translator explains, she says promises of post-earthquake relief have not reached her.

    “After the earthquake, no one came to help us,” says Silouen through a translator. “When the earthquake happened, white folks came in but they never really got help from anybody.”

    Several hundred thousand people live here, in shacks constructed from plywood, cinderblocks and tin. The alleyways are wide enough for only one person to walk down, and they teem with children who skip over open sewers. A hole with a tire placed on top serves as a latrine. The lingering smoke of burnt trash competes with the smell of human waste. Women cook on open flames fueled by charcoal or oil.

    It’s not as if nothing has happened here. N-G-O’s are building temporary housing. But it’s made of plywood and residents don’t want to move in because they feel it’s flimsy. And remember these are people who continue to live with the fear of collapsing houses.

    Residents of this sprawling slum elected Wilson Louis Mayor. He says he has little control over what the N-G-O’s do.

    “There isn’t really a working relationship with N-G-O’s. They just stop by the Mayor’s office and say this is what we’re doing. And then he can approve it or disapprove it or whatever it is they’re asking for. But it’s more of a political back and forth rather than a collaborative relationship,” says Louis.

    Louis explains none of the earthquake relief flowed to his office. Instead it goes to N-G-O’s, who answer to funders back home, not to the government of Haiti.

    About a mile down the road from the rubble of Cite Soleil there are brightly painted brand new houses next to a new school buzzing with uniformed children and run by another N-G-O. Each two-bedroom house looks like a tiny suburban tract home with electricity.

    Nobody’s living in these houses, except for a French and Israeli aid worker helping out at the school. They say these homes were designed by Cubans, and funded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. There’s no real explanation for why they’re empty.

    Not far from the empty tract homes, stood another neighborhood with homes built by the government of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrande Aristide. When I asked whether the poor of Cite Soleil, like Catelaine Silouen, would soon become their neighbors, they shook their heads. These houses are expensive, they said. She couldn’t afford it.

    With ten thousand N-G-O’s operating in Haiti, the confusion over who built these houses, and who will get to move in, is not surprising.

    And with Haitians facing so many unmet needs — food, clothing, shelter, medical care, jobs…how are they coping with the trauma on an emotional level?

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