One year ago this Wednesday, the ground beneath Haiti shook and the world watched in horror.
More than 200,000 people died and millions more sought refuge amid the rubble.
The outpouring of international aid, including from the United States, was unprecedented. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which had long-standing presences in Haiti due to its history of poverty and unstable leadership, were instrumental in getting the country past the initial hurdle of re-establishing some semblance of shelter and social order.
Today, Haiti still lies largely in ruins. About 5 percent of the massive amounts of rubble have been cleared, leaving the capital of Port-au-Prince still a city still with deep digging – physically and otherwise – ahead.
Christian humanitarian organizations have been instrumental in the broad web of NGOs providing food, shelter and basic necessities to the Haitian people. Some progress has been seen and stimulated. Yet, there is little doubt that Haiti and the organizations serving it still have years of hard work in front of them.
Even before the 7.0 magnitude quake, Haiti was a country known for poor infrastructure. Issues of construction safety were painfully evident amid the destruction. With much of that destruction a part of the Haitian landscape, making headway is complicated at best.
“A lot of it has to do with the rubble removal,” said Amy Parodi, director of media relations planning and operations for Seattle-based World Vision. “There was roughly 27 metric tons of rubble from just one event and there is nowhere to put it, there’s not enough heavy equipment to move it. Until that rubble is removed, you just can’t physically rebuild.”
Ken Issacs would agree. He is the vice president of programs for governmental relations for Samaritan’s Purse, the relief ministry affiliated with Billy Graham and headed by his son, Franklin. Standing in the national soccer stadium on Friday preparing for an evangelism festival hosted by Franklin Graham, Isaacs painted the picture of a city still largely in ruins.
“I’m standing at the 50-yard-line of the field and looking up I’m seeing crumpled buildings everywhere,” Isaacs explained. “I can see three piles of trash burning where buildings used to be. On our way here we passed hundreds of thousands of people living in tents, tarps and shacks and other kinds of temporary housing.
“If I had to compare the way things are compared to January 13th of last year, I guess I would say life has reached a new normal, but the destruction is everywhere. The Haitian people are frustrated, but at the same time are moving on, and they have very little to do it with quite honestly.”
Among the complexities of shelter are issues of who owns what and where.
“Shelter has been difficult because the land rights issues there are really complicated,” Parodi said. “Even before the earthquake, no one was really sure who owned what land. There was a lot of confusion about that, and when the earthquake happened in the capital city, all the documents that were there were destroyed. It’s very difficult to slog through all of that to find from a legal standpoint what is really going on. Our staff has to readjust and tweak things as new circumstances come up.”
One of the changes taking part from a construction standpoint, in addition to building and maintaining temporary homes in the range of 12 feet by 12 feet, is working on more permanent structures.
“One of the next things we’re looking at is permanent construction, not so much for housing but for schools and orphanages,” Isaacs said. “We have machines which can take clay, sand and cement together and form a hard block that can be used for building. That’s our next step forward.”
While Haitians have moved on from the initial shock of the quake and its devastation, the need for assistance hasn’t, even is the type of assistance may have changed.
“In the spring we adjusted to targeted food distribution, which usually means children, pregnant women, young mothers, the elderly, disabled, groups with a particular vulnerability,” Parodi said. “As people received their initial relief-focused services, they need different services and move on to a different level of relief and rehabilitation. The population of people needing services really hasn’t shrunk that much.”
Much has been made in the media about the Haitian people’s resilience and ability to adjust to their circumstances. While that is true, there is more depth and complexity involved.
“The Haitian people, for the most part, led hard lives before the earthquake, so there is a lot of toughness there,” Parodi explained. “The lack of infrastructure and lack of services they had even before the earthquake made life difficult even before this disaster.
“At the same time there has been a lot of frustration there. People know that this is not right. They know that the way they are living isn’t normal. People want their lives back; they want their lives to get better.”
Complicating matters even further was the start of a cholera outbreak last October, which has killed about 2,500 people with tens of thousands more sickened by the water-borne disease.
“Even before the quake, the water and sanitation situation in Haiti was abysmal and certainly the quake made it worse,” Parodi said. “With 1.3 million people in Port-au-Prince, it says a lot for the response by everyone in general that cholera didn’t spread like wildfire in the camps. With that many people living in such close proximity, it’s a situation that is made for cholera to spread.”
“With our medical teams, we started treating cholera and took other people off of what they were doing to focus on cholera,” Isaacs added. “Since the rainy season ended, the number of cholera cases plateaued and we were able to take some that capacity and apply it back toward shelter.”
Programs already in place before cholera hit with teaching refugee camp residents about maintaining personal hygiene and training children how to properly wash their hands were helpful in keeping the cholera under control to some degree, Parodi said.
Haiti has also been mired in political instability in the wake of disputed presidential elections which prompted a surge of violence in the past month.
“There are rumors circulating about political parties distributing arms to people to prepare and fight, and I don’t know what is true and what isn’t true, but what they need is stability,” Isaacs said. “The other thing is that there are no jobs here. Everywhere I go in Haiti, they want to work, but there’s nothing to do. As an organization we don’t get into macroeconomic policy nor will we ever, but it clearly needs economic development.
There are so many needs here, it’s hard to say which one is the top priority, but what we are focused on is doing everything that we do in the name of Christ.”
Of course, engineering a vast network of manpower and supplies for a country still in the very early stages of recovery requires long-term financial dedication. In terms of NGOs, that means persistent donor support as the massive influx of cash in the days and weeks immediately following the quake gradually dwindles. Parodi said World Vision has spent $107 million of the $194 million raised in the response to the earthquake. Similarly, Isaacs said Samaritan’s Purse initially raised $48 million, of which $36 million has been spent, and that about $20 million will be budgeted for 2011.
“This is something were in for the long haul,” Parodi said, noting that needs for assistance to Haiti may extend for as long as a decade. “We have about 40 percent left of what our initial donations were, and as time moves on, we’re obviously going to be changing some of the work that we do. We are starting to transition things to a longer term track, especially in areas where people have moved to provide transitional housing and small-plot agriculture and trying to find opportunities for people who have lost their livelihoods in the quake.”
“There’s a lot of big needs here to focus on shelter, water, cholera, sanitation, hygiene, public health care. It’s a very complex and complicated situation,” Isaacs said.