Americas

Haiti's Rising Urgency

Residents pass the remains of a dental clinic on March 12 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Photo: Thony Belizaire/ AFP-Getty Images)

Two months after a 7.3 magnitude quake struck Haiti on January 12, leaving approximately 230,000 people dead and more than 1.2 million people homeless, there are many questions. How are the people coping? Is the aid getting through? Where will Haiti's displaced people find new homes, and how fast will they get there?

In order to get some answers, I combed through the international press, and I was dismayed at the lack of updated information. After reaching out to Worldpress readers through Twitter, asking for Haiti updates, I received hundreds of emails from Haitians and visitors to the country, and they all expressed that the situation in Haiti grows more urgent with each passing day.

While some of the emails were full of hope, many were full of fear and despair. One aid worker stressed the dire need for humanitarian help, especially as seasonal rains could threaten those left homeless with an outbreak of disease.

An orphanage worker said that there were 280,000 orphans before the disaster struck, and now an estimated 20,000 or more since. More than two months later, thousands of children are still separated from their parents. Aid is still desperately needed in some of the more remote areas in Haiti, and one email mentioned that machete-armed gangs are still lurking about.

In early March, the Batey Relief Alliance sent a team of dental and medical specialists from the United States to barely accessible communities like Anse-a-Pitre to deliver much-needed dental and medical care to children and their families living in horrendous conditions. Many Haitians are living in inaccessible communities and are completely isolated from medical services and international aid.

The emails from and about amputees were the hardest to read. According to one, between 6,000 and 8,000 people have lost limbs, and the numbers continue to grow as people suffer untreated infections. Thousands more suffered complicated fractures, some of which could turn into amputations if not managed properly.

A recent amputee was full of fear because the disabled are often treated as pariahs and isolated from society in Haiti. "Disabilities are ridiculed and thought of as a curse," she wrote.

One man said that in Haiti three out of four people are unemployed, and the work that does exist requires physical labor, making the situation very scary for him. He said that he couldn't get work when he had two legs, so how would he survive with just one? "You are a not a person if you are handicapped," he wrote.

Haiti, a country of 9 million that had limited capacity to treat an estimated 800,000 disabled people before the quake, lost two of its three prosthetics labs when the buildings were destroyed or damaged. A smaller lab remains in the south, but it desperately needs materials to make prosthetic devices.

Many amputees remain in fly-swarming hospital tents, and those who have been discharged have little hope, with no rehabilitation facilities, few physical therapists, and no chance of getting a prosthesis. A scant supply of crutches, canes and wheelchairs are trickling in through donations, but there are few paved roads, making navigating a wheelchair nearly impossible.

Michel Pean, Haiti's secretary of state for the integration of the disabled, recently said that Haiti's disabled—about 8 percent of the population even before the quake—had long been treated as second-class citizens, but the government has recently taken legal steps to recognize their rights and opened offices to serve them in the countryside. Ideally, Pean said, post-earthquake reconstruction could provide the impetus to make Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, more accessible to the disabled and create a national institute for rehabilitation.

For the moment, the focus is on making sure the thousands who underwent lifesaving amputations have a future.

"The situation for newly disabled persons is very delicate," Pean said. "They urgently need not only medical care, but food and a place to live. Also, we cannot forget those disabled before the disaster who, because of their handicap, are having trouble getting access to humanitarian aid."

"Haiti is trying to go back to normality, but several years will pass before everything goes back to the way it was before January 12," one aid worker wrote. "And excuse my negativity, but the way the Haitians lived before January 12 shouldn't really be considered normal."

Thanks to international aid, thousands of families have received tarps or tents that give them shelter, but it is not nearly enough given the huge demand, and many men and women wander around the city looking for wood, brass or nylon to build weak living structures they sadly call home. Families who aren't as lucky to find building materials simply form tents out of bed sheets.

Almost all the capital's parks, soccer fields, school yards and even a country-club golf course in suburban Pétionville are packed with people living in flimsy structures under terrible conditions. They have no water, electricity or a sanitation system that could prevent the spread of epidemics.

Haiti's inhabitants, as well as its authorities, are more concerned about the upcoming hurricane season, which begins on June 1, than rain, since none of the provisional settlements have conditions to withstand the strong winds of a hurricane. Despite the efforts of the international community, thousands of Haitians will have no shelter during the hurricane season.

Around 200,000 tents have been delivered in Haiti, and the number might reach 240,000, but those shelters are too weak to deal with tropical cyclones. The massive distribution of tarps—and to a much lesser extent, tents—has reached 53 percent of the 1.3 million people in need of shelter, according to a March 11 U.N. report.

Educators say that classes do not have a set date to begin. They were supposed to start by April, which would be almost impossible since more than 80 percent of the schools in the earthquake zone were destroyed or severely damaged. Nearly 4,000 students and more than 700 teachers, principals and staff were killed during afternoon classes. All that's left of the Ministry of Education's main building is a crater filled with torn workbooks and lost teachers' ID cards.

A petition has been delivered to President Preval demanding that schools reopen immediately, be they in tents, temporary buildings or other makeshift facilities. But others are urging caution before rushing back into a system that never really worked in the first place. The problems are monumental: Just one in 10 Haitian teachers is a qualified educator, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, and a third have not even completed ninth grade.

The government is unable to support more than a handful of schools, leaving the system dominated by fly-by-night, for-profit storefront schools whose onerous fees and other costs keep half of Haiti's children from enrolling at any given time. Wealthy Haitians and foreigners opt out entirely, putting their children in upscale schools that cost some $8,000 per year—more than most Haitians will spend on food and basic necessities in 20 years.

Buildings were so unsafe that one school collapsed on its own in 2008, killing 100 students and adults. Two months after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince still has thousands of constructions that are partly destroyed or about to roll down the hillsides.

Another devastating reality is that Haiti's best and brightest were lost in the earthquake. They were the educated few of Haiti, an up-and-coming generation of nurses, technicians, office managers and college students. These people kept the books, educated the young, fixed the computers and were an integral part of building up Haiti. Now they're gone, just when their struggling country needs them most. Because the earthquake struck just before 5:00 pm, it annihilated office buildings and disproportionately killed the young professionals who were working in them. "So many of those bright young people who were going the extra mile to make Haiti work were crushed at their desks," a nurse wrote me.

"It is a generation that decided not to leave the country. They chose to work for the country," said Dieusibon Pierre-Merite, a Haitian sociologist with a United Nations anti-gang program that lost several staffers in the quake. "They are the ones who died." It will impact our culture, the future of Haiti."

The list of those lost is long. It includes judges who investigated violations of law in a country where street justice still rules; the Foreign Ministry's point man on relations with the neighboring Dominican Republic; at least 10 agronomists working at the agricultural ministry to restore Haiti's farm sector; and three of Haiti's leading women's rights advocates, Magalie Marcelin, Myriam Merlet and Anne Marie Coriolan.

Preparations for the next disaster will have to go on without Ginna Porcena, the dynamic director of the National Geospatial Institute, who was part of a group of scientists who wanted to establish seismology stations in Haiti. The earthquake also killed many foreign aid workers and businesspeople who cared deeply about Haiti and would have been the first to pitch in after the disaster. The United Nations lost 101 staffers, including the mission's top two officials.

Compounding the loss of Haiti's best and brightest is a quickening brain drain, as people with the ability and means to leave are abandoning the ravaged country. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told The Associated Press he has watched with dismay as educated youths boarded planes to the United States and elsewhere. They leave because Haiti, always a difficult place to live, became impossible after the quake, he said.

"I was looking at their faces: They were escaping a country and they had no intention to go back," Bellerive said. "I feel love for the people that have lost family ... but I believe it's even harder for the country to see living people that could do so much to rebuild Haiti, leaving Haiti."

Only half of Haitians ever see the inside of a classroom, and only 2 percent complete high school, according to UNICEF.

Haiti has gone through such losses of talent before, usually in times of political upheaval. Many fled or were killed under the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorships from 1957 to 1986. People also escaped reprisals under the U.S.-backed junta of General Raoul Cedras in the early 1990s, under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and in the violent chaos that followed Aristide's 2004 ouster.

But the losses this time are far more significant. The destruction was so widespread and instantaneous—gutting the capital and its institutions at precisely the moment when help, guidance and new ideas were most needed—that the absence will be felt for decades.

One email asked if I knew what preparations would be made to arrange a presidential contest before President Préval's term expires early next year. Most if not all polling stations in the quake zone were damaged or destroyed, and the hundreds of thousands of voters who were not killed were displaced or left without ID cards.

Most of the emails I received contained more questions than updates. Who will take care of the orphaned children? Where will Haitians live? When will the children be able to go back to school? What will happen to the amputees? Is the departure of U.S. troops a sign of dwindling international interest in the plight of the Haitian people? With each week, and a looming spring rainy season that could bring devastating flooding to low-lying camps, the answers to those questions grow more urgent.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.

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