Haiti’s invincible progress a year after disaster

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In the year since a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, an unprecedented international effort has mobilized to bring relief to the country while confronting obstacles both pre-existing the quake and directly caused by it.

When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti just before 5 p.m. on January 12, 2010, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere lost 230,000 of its citizens, 28 of its 29 government ministries, and shelter, clean water and power that would have made life more livable for millions of survivors.

In an interview conducted in the office of the Haiti special coordinator for reconstruction at the one-year anniversary of the quake, Deputy Coordinator Kara McDonald outlined the U.S. government’s approach to reconstruction and assessed the progress of the last 12 months.

McDonald distinguished between the immediate emergency response and the long-term strategy for help. The U.S.-led international response immediately following the disaster involved an “unprecedented approach to multilateral cooperation and to interagency cooperation,” she said. One-hundred and forty countries joined the United States to offer assistance. Within the United States, the coordination of efforts included the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, Energy and Treasury. McDonald cites this level of cooperation as something that was “started in the emergency environment that we’re pulling through to the [long-term] strategy.”

The short term: Emergency response

In the immediate response, USAID joined with the United Nations World Food Programme in the largest urban food distribution effort in history, feeding more than 3.5 million people. The quake created 25 million tons of rubble that will take years to clear. But in the 10 months following the quake, more rubble has been removed in Haiti than was in the 2½ years following the tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

The long-term U.S. strategy for reconstruction is built on four areas of greatest concern: infrastructure, agriculture, health and rule of law. In each of these areas, Haiti was far behind the rest of the Western world prior to the earthquake.

“We’ve worked to house or to bring out of the displaced persons camps about 125,000 people. We have assessed about 400,000 homes for the amount of damage they’ve sustained,” McDonald said. Structures are assessed according to a green/yellow/red system. More than half of those assessed have been designated “green”— ready to be occupied — while USAID is providing assistance in repairing the 25 percent designated “yellow” — houses that are structurally sound but require repairs to be safely occupied.

The U.S. government has injected $19 million into the local economy by employing 350,000 Haitians in short-term jobs in areas of rubble removal, preparations for Hurricane Tomas or building assessments.

Sixty percent of Haitians derive their income from agriculture. With investment from the United States in fertilizer, tools, seeds and technical training, some areas have seen a crop increase of 75 percent. More Haitians have access to clean water today than did before the earthquake, and the U.S. government has supported immunization of more than a million Haitians against highly communicable diseases such as diphtheria and polio.

The long term: Toward a sustainable recovery

Part of the challenge of implementing the long-term strategy has been the degree to which its four aspects are intertwined. McDonald gave the example of the million Haitians still living in tents under plastic sheeting. In addition to those whose homes were destroyed in the quake, some stay in the tent city because it offers benefits their original community did not. And these benefits may have more to do with health (access to clean water) and rule of law (security) than infrastructure.

“Progress isn’t always visible,” McDonald said. “If you look at Aceh or if you look at [Hurricane] Katrina — some of these large-scale natural disasters — it really takes a good 18 months to get the coordination structures and the work ramped up to a point where you start to see a lot of the benefits of these.

“So that’s not to say that there hasn’t been a lot of progress, but it is to say that it’s important to keep the momentum up, even when the frustrations are high. Because we really feel that the returns are really in front of us.”

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