The 6-month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone, and after heavy media coverage and a slew of government events, the Haitian people have been reminded, yet again, that their situation sucks and nothing has really improved. I’ve been trying to think about how to sum up the events of the past 6 months for a while now, considering we all knew it was coming weeks before the day arrived, and it’s still hard to comprehend. Just over 6 months ago the earthquake in Haiti destroyed over 180,000 homes, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless. Unfortunately none of those things have changed.
When Jillian and I returned to the States after the earthquake tons of people asked how long it would take to recover. “Months? Years?” they would ask. The answer was always a disappointing one, “More, probably decades,” we would say. Haiti was already a place that seemed without hope, and now it appears to be almost irreparably damaged. The infrastructure that was already sorely lacking has been torn to shreds, and the poor have just become poorer (and homeless).
With the help of tons of international money, work has begun trying to pick up the shattered pieces of an already broken country, but there are so many compounding issues that stand in the way. Both the Haitian people and the NGOs have desperately waited for some sense of leadership from the government here, but let’s be honest, there is not a single person in this entire world who could single-handedly grasp the enormity of the issues that now face this country. Elections are scheduled for November, but who would want to be the President of a country that has hit absolute rock bottom.
So like I said before, there are a bunch of issues to deal with, none have just one quick-fix, and they all depend on each other in one way or another. Let’s start with the tent cities: 1.5 million people are still living in spontaneous camps throughout the country, left homeless after their houses were damaged or destroyed. Just after the earthquake the heat was on to get them into shelters before the rainy season, and while NGOs earnestly worked to achieve this goal it was quickly realized that moving that many people, and building that many homes, was impossible in just a matter of months. The rainy season has been upon us for months, hurricane season starts in earnest soon, and both the Haitian people and the NGOs have now admitted that the tent cities will be here for years.
But part of the hang up is there is just no place to build the homes. Land-rights issues have slowed an already sluggish process, and with no one knowing who owns what, the building of transitional homes has been slow in coming. Of the 125,000 transitional shelters planned, just under 4,000 have been built. These shelters are produced to only last between 2-5 years, leaving the looming question of what happens next? Supplies to build these houses is tough to come by, and shipping containers filled with the necessary tools to do the job sit stuck at customs, waiting for a simple signature that may take months to obtain.
But even if you have the supplies, and you know who owns the land, it might be impossible to build simply because the rubble of the house that stood there before has not been removed. As you already know, Cash for Work programs (like the one Jillian is managing) are working everyday to clear the rubble that fills the streets and neighborhoods throughout the country. The problem? There is too much rubble, and not enough resources to move it.
One estimate says it could take 1,000 trucks 1,000 days to move all the rubble out of PAP. That’s over 3 years, just to move the rubble. But yet another problem jumps out, as there are just over 300 dump trucks operating in the capital doing this work. You can do the math, but I went ahead and did it for you: at this pace it will take over a decade to move all the rubble out of the city. If the rubble is still there, there are no transitional homes, and if there are no homes then people aren’t moving out of the tent cities.
Even though I’ve painted a pretty dismal picture, there are some bright spots. 80% of the schools in PAP were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, but since then they have reopened 80% of those affected. That’s a huge accomplishment in just six months. While over 50% of the children in Haiti still don’t go to school, I think we can all agree that education is key to a proper recovery, so getting those kids back in the classroom helps immensely. Also, because of a huge push to vaccinate Haitians, and particularly children, from infectious diseases right after the earthquake, there has yet to be an outbreak. This is great news considering that if just one family catches something bad in a tent city, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the tightly packed families around them to catch it too.
So we are left here, 6 months after the earthquake, with little progress. I’ll be the first to admit, everything in Haiti takes about 5-times longer than anywhere else, so the slow pace of recovery isn’t shocking. And you also have to give the NGOs slack simply because rebuilding an entire city, or country for that matter, takes an enormous amount of time. The phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” resonates well here, but that’s hard to explain to the people who live in tents that seem to hold heat better than our oven. Life is miserable for them, and time is something they just don’t have.
For Jillian and I, this 6 months has proven to be an enormous test. Jillian used to say “the earthquake was the easy part,” and it’s totally true. In that situation, for her at least, it was life or death, black or white. It was ‘get home and get help’, and knowing what was best was pretty clear. But now we are posed with questions that always tend to have a slight tint of gray to them, whether it be Jillian managing her programs for WC, or just questions about us. Nothing comes easy anymore, and whether that’s a reflection of living in Haiti or the residual emotional effects of what happened to us during the earthquake, it’s hard to tell.
We have made some major progressions. We moved from a tent in Ben and Alexis’ yard to our beautiful Ti Kay. Jillian went from newly unemployed to being a rockstar at her new job managing programs that are really helping Haitians in need. I went from an unemployed freelance journalist to NBC’s man in Haiti. Olie went from a tiny little fur ball into a teenage punk of a puppy. These are all good things, things we can hang our hats on and say, “not bad, all things considered.” But it’s funny how all the external things can align perfectly when the pieces inside just don’t seem to fit.
For a lot of people, when they heard that the 6 month anniversary was here they were shocked: “I can’t believe it’s already been 6 months!” they would say. “I can,” I would think to myself, it’s been the longest 6 months of my life. It’s hard not to resent the earthquake for doing what it did to us, as I’m sure is the case with almost every single person in Haiti. Our life was so simple before, it was just Jillian and I, in love, newly married, and living a comfortable life in our tiny little apartment in DC. Back then all we had to worry about was the cockroaches that pranced around the floors while we ate dinner. Now our decisions have ramifications, like whether people will be living in miserable tents for the next couple years.
And while many things have moved on, some have stayed the same. It’s been 6 months since the Mission House we lived in collapsed, and all of our possessions are still sitting (finely pressed, we’re assuming) under the rubble. I’ve asked to go back and simply dig (without putting myself at risk), but have been turned down time and time again because of a not-so-simple reason. You see, Haitian Ministries forgot to pay their earthquake insurance for more than a year before the quake, making the house a pile of worthless rubble instead of a fat insurance check to use on the next Mission House. Because of that no one has been allowed to dig in the house at all (they made an exception when we dug Jillian and Chuck out, thank goodness), as the lawyers overseeing the case have asked to keep it just the way it is until the case is resolved.
Jillian is over this, and I can understand why, the house brings bad memories and she’s ready to move on. But for me, this is something that I need for closure, just to know that all our stuff is gone (or not…), to know that that life is over. It’s the watch that my Dad gave me when I graduated from college, it’s all the pictures that are stored on my computer, it’s the hard drive that I backed up all my pictures on and set next to my computer (woops!). It’s not so much getting those items back, it’s knowing that I can just move on and get on with the future, and not live in the past. It’s so incredibly frustrating to not be given that chance, to be held back when practically everyone else here has had that opportunity already.
But now we look ahead, at the next 6 months, after which we will look back at what has been done here and scoff at why more hasn’t changed. By then Jillian and I will have decided if we will stay here for another year or make the move elsewhere, whether it be back to the States or to another country. Olie will be HUGE, and probably injuring us constantly by thinking he is still a puppy that can jump on our laps like he does now. Haitians will still be living in tents, and our stuff will probably still be sitting in the rubble of the Mission House. 6 months from now lot’s of things will have changed, but I fear that many will stay same, leaving Haitians with yet another round of media interviews and government events reminding them how bad life after the earthquake really is.