Hope for Haiti

To walk through the streets of Port-au-Prince today, one would hardly recognize the Haitian capital as the same city that only four years ago was buried under rubble following a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Nearly all of the debris has been cleared from the main roads, hundreds of thousands of people have moved from tent cities to more permanent homes and life, in many ways, has returned to the way it was before the disaster decimated the already struggling country.

“The difference is just amazing,” said Darren Hercyk, country director for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Haiti. “There are very few visible sites of buildings that collapsed. … You don’t look around and see a lot of ruins. Those are all gone.”

Workers review plans to construct a new hospital in Port-au-Prince after much of it was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Photo by Wilkenson Vertus, courtesy CRS

The physical improvements are a testament to the tremendous amount of aid and effort poured into Haiti following the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, one of the largest in the country’s recorded history. With an epicenter just 16 miles outside Port-au-Prince, the earthquake destroyed much of the capital city, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and several government buildings. Initial death tolls reported by the Haitian government were around 220,000, although the accuracy of the numbers was debatable since the widespread destruction made it difficult to obtain reliable data. Many of those who survived the initial damage lost their homes and were displaced to tent camps, which in July 2010 reached a peak population of 1.5 million people. According to the most recent United Nations report in October 2013, the number of Haitians living in tent cities has dropped to 172,000 — an 89 percent decline from three years earlier, but still a tragic statistic.

“You won’t see tent camps in public areas anymore; at one point they were everywhere,” said Hercyk. “But if you’re driving through the side streets you will still see them. The tent camps are probably the biggest [visible] reminder of the earthquake.”

Troubled nation

The destruction caused by the earthquake would have been difficult for any country to overcome, but it was especially challenging for Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

“Haiti, before the earthquake, was already a disaster area,” according to Angel Aloma, executive director of the Christian charity Food for the Poor. “The earthquake brought new meaning to [the concept of] ‘nothing,’ because people who we always said had nothing now had even less, if that is even possible.”

Food for the Poor, which has been active in Haiti since 1986, is among the faith-based humanitarian organizations that have been working for decades to improve living conditions in the country. Malnutrition claims the lives of one in 14 Haitian children before age 5, Aloma said, and residents of the country have long struggled with lack of access to clean water, health care and education.

Ken Firling became well acquainted with the challenges in Haiti when he first began visiting the country 26 years ago through an outreach mission in his northern Virginia parish. He has continued working with the Haitian people on improving conditions in the country and now leads a team of volunteers from his current parish, St. Margaret Mary in Winter Park, Fla., in addressing ongoing problems in Haiti.

Many Americans were unaware of just how severe the situation in Haiti has been for decades, Firling said.

“The earthquake did bring a lot of attention to Haiti and began to show people the horrific conditions that exist within only a couple of hours by plane from the United States,” he said.

Outpouring of support

With the tremendous amount of news coverage it received, the earthquake prompted a massive outpouring of support for Haiti, especially from the Catholic community. A special parish collection for Haiti coordinated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops raised nearly $85 million in one weekend, and CRS, the bishops’ official humanitarian relief and development agency, received more than $200 million in donations for its recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Ogisna Journal, president of a coffee cooperative in Haiti, participates in Catholic Relief Services’ Mountains to Markets project. The project is helping redevelop coffee production in the Beaumont region of Haiti, a once-thriving coffee sector. Photo by Robyn Fieser, courtesy CRS

“So, in an odd sort of way, the earthquake has been helpful for Haiti,” Firling said. The pre-existing struggles in Haiti certainly complicated the earthquake recovery effort, but they also helped to enable a rapid response. Since several relief organizations were already on the ground and well-established in Haiti, they were equipped to begin the relief effort immediately.

Among them was the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), a global health care charity that has been in Haiti since 1912. Although their primary efforts in Haiti center on long-term health solutions, such as prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and initiatives aimed at maternal and child health, they were able to switch gears and quickly help treat people injured by the earthquake.

“We became first responders,” said Adrian Kerrigan, CMMB’s senior vice president for advancement. “Immediately we were able to help with the emergency because we have a large staff in Haiti and we already had a large quantity of medicines and supplies there.”

The organization worked hard to get its primary programs back on track, but they also expanded into new areas. In response to the large numbers of Haitians who lost limbs or suffered permanent disabilities in the earthquake, CMMB became a founding member of the Haitian Amputee Coalition, which to date has helped more than 1,000 earthquake survivors receive prostheses and physical therapy.

Recovery roadblocks

Food for the Poor was also able to quickly spring into action after the earthquake, providing essential needs like food and water to victims. Within days of the earthquake they began distributing thousands of cooked meals to people living in the tent camps, but soon new problems began to arise.

Aloma recalls visiting a tent city with 6,000 inhabitants but only seven working toilets. Clean drinking water became scarce, and the poor sanitation in the camps coupled with the fact that many people’s immune systems were already compromised from lack of nutrition resulted in cholera spreading rapidly. The Haitian government reported 667,122 cases of cholera between October 2010 and July 2013, with 8,190 deaths.

“With the cholera epidemic breaking out, things became really horrendous,” Aloma said. “After losing more than 200,000 people to the earthquake, all of a sudden people started dropping like flies to cholera.”

Food for the Poor responded by focusing on water sanitation efforts, beginning by sending water purification systems. In 2012, they installed 77 water wells and 70 solar-powered water filtration units, which provide 10,000 gallons of purified water per day. These efforts, along with those of other relief groups, helped to slow the epidemic. According to a recent United Nations report, cholera infection rates decreased by 62 percent in 2013 and fatality rates have gone down by almost 70 percent.

But cholera was just one roadblock that slowed the recovery effort. Among the other obstacles were the damage caused by two major hurricanes, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the latter of which caused major agricultural damage. But such setbacks are par for the course in Haiti, said Hercyk.

“In Haiti, you are working on the full spectrum: You’re working on emergencies, you’re working on recovery and you’re working on development, sometimes all at the same time,” he said. “You almost expect an emergency to happen every year. ... Haiti is very fragile in the sense that even hard rains will cause severe flooding. That’s what makes Haiti unique — we are working on all of those things at one time.”

Back to basics

As the initial emergency response effort slowed down, organizations like CRS, which has been working on solutions to systemic problems in Haiti since 1954, have been able to return to their original focus on programs aimed at long-term growth and sustainability.

“Our work has been a journey,” said Hercyk. “We have gone from life-saving work, which is food, water, sanitation and protection, to recovery, which is getting people into temporary shelters and restarting their lives. Now we’re back to working on some of the issues that were in Haiti before the earthquake. We realize now that in order to really move things forward, we have to go back to working on some of the root causes.”

For CRS, that has meant a primary focus on three specific areas of need: health care, housing and education. Among their major projects has been the rebuilding of St. Francois de Sales Hospital in Port-au-Prince, the development of a Catholic health care network in partnership with the Catholic Health Association, and a collaborative effort with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education to provide teacher certification and improved access to Catholic schools.

Hopeful outlook

After months without work and with a grant from CRS, Vitanel Joseph, a father of three, is back at the sewing machine and earning a sufficient income to care for his family. Photo by Robyn Fieser, courtesy CRS

Aloma said that Food for the Poor is focusing today on sustainability for the people of Haiti, the same goal they had been working on long before the earthquake. Among their projects has been forming a cooperative of fishermen, training them in deep-sea fishing, providing them with high-powered fishing boats and even teaching them to use a GPS to access the best fishing areas.

With so much work left to be done, it can be easy to overlook such growth, said Aloma. “People keep saying that there is never any progress in Haiti, that it is like throwing money down a dark hole,” he said.

But comparing the situation today to what it was like in 2010, there have been huge improvements, he said. Roads and infrastructure are being repaired, better quality houses are being built and companies are moving their factories to the northern corridor of Haiti to provide new job opportunities.

“The need is humongous still — this is only a drop in the bucket,” said Aloma. “But there is hope. There is always hope in Haiti.”

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.

Additional Reading
5 Ways You Can Help Haiti