PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Gray ribbons of fresh cement streak the side of Clarisse Brisson’s broken home, where she and her family are slowly making repairs. Inside, she reads Bible verses to sustain her. Next door, the neighbor’s home is a heap of crumbled stone and rusted iron bars.
“We are just living on a daily basis, watching and waiting,” Brisson sighed, leaning her head against a bent metal door jam.
“For a year.”
A year ago, one of modern times’ worst natural disasters struck one of modern times’ poorest nations. In seconds, roughly 10 percent of this capital’s population was killed or mortally wounded in a massive earthquake at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12.
Haiti was plunged into a catatonic state. Dead bodies lay in the streets, many poking halfway out from under the buildings that crushed them. Survivors wandered, dazed or frantic, searching for spouses and children, covered in the white dust that billowed from the ruins. Screams and moans of the dying, and those seeking them, filled the night, and the Earth periodically shook again, and again.
Today, life of a sort has returned to Haiti. The bodies are mostly gone (though on occasion another is unearthed), and the chaos is part of the routine of survival, of scraping out a living. Traffic snarls up and down hillsides. Most children who go to school are back in classrooms, though jittery and traumatized; commerce is haphazardly brisk.
Yet virtually no major reconstruction is evident. Iconic structures, such as the grand Roman Catholic Cathedral and the majestic presidential palace, remain misshapen carcasses. Only 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, according to one estimate. The majority of the population remains jobless. And the nearly 1,200 tent encampments scattered across the city, where more than 1 million displaced people sought shelter, have taken on a deliberate permanence – much as aid workers a year ago said they feared would happen.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, humanitarian response was so massive that agencies (many undertaking their largest and most challenging mission ever) were practically bumping into each other, creating at times a huge bottleneck of aid. The efforts nevertheless saved thousands of lives.
A year later, the slow pace of overall recovery and unstarted reconstruction is being widely criticized by outside experts and watchdog groups, as Haiti’s tragedies merely multiply: a cholera epidemic has infected more than 170,000 people and claimed nearly 4,000 lives, while a political crisis has left the country unable to choose its next president.
“I feel uneasy and sort of uncomfortable about what is still a disaster situation for most of the population,” said Stefano Zannini, head of mission in Haiti for Doctors Without Borders, one of the largest and longest-serving aid groups in the country. “During the last year, I’ve heard a lot of … talking about promises, plans, strategies, money. These three, four words, you know, over and over. Promises.”
In a scathing report last week, the international charity Oxfam cited a “quagmire of indecision and delay” that has paralyzed efforts to provide housing to the more than 1 million homeless and may have contributed to the cholera epidemic.
Reconstruction is also delayed because only 5 percent of the 20 million cubic meters of rubble generated by the quake has been removed, Oxfam said.
Oxfam and other critics blame a historically weak and dysfunctional state in a country plagued by coups, military dictatorships and a self-protecting elite; a lack of leadership from a government that also suffered heavily in the earthquake (all major government headquarters were destroyed or damaged, 30 percent of civil servants were killed, and President Rene Preval essentially went AWOL the first desperate days after the disaster); and poor coordination among the myriad humanitarian agencies. Some organizations and foreign governments have also been reluctant to release money into the corrupt morass of the Haitian state and business elite.
The highly heralded reconstruction committee chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has also come under criticism. Formed in April to head disaster management, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission has only met four times, Zannini said.
“Look, nobody’s been more frustrated than I am that we haven’t done more,” Clinton said Tuesday in Port-au-Prince. “But I’m encouraged if you look at how much faster it’s been going in the last four months.”
A total of $5.57 billion for the years 2010 and 2011 was pledged to Haiti at a donors conference in March. Only a fraction has been delivered. And most of what has been spent, aid agencies say, has gone not to reconstruction but to basic, life-sustaining services and relief: shelter, water, food, amputations, vaccinations.
The tent encampments, their blue and white tarps crowding into plazas, parks and seemingly any open space, may seem precarious, and life there squalid. But today the camps offer many Haitians better services and access to food and water than they had before the quake, when more than half the country’s households had neither running water nor solid-waste disposal systems, according to Haitian and United Nations officials.
And so many now feature small stores offering 90-cent beer, beauty parlors, video game arcades and tiny evangelical chapels. At the Adorken camp, named for a pavement tile and stretching through a valley under electrical power pylons, Roselore St. Surin, her black hair streaked in royal blue, had transformed her tent into a structure with plywood walls, a window with a glass pane and lime-green curtains.
“It’s kind of a way to feel human,” said her tent-city neighbor, Jordan Marcelles, 23.
No one in the camp would say he or she is better off now than before the quake, by any measure, Marcelles said. Disease spreads rapidly in the camps, and rape and other violent crimes have terrorized many.
“If I had a chance to leave right this afternoon, I would be out of here,” said Rodney Annilus, 41, who takes turn sleeping on two tiny cots with his wife, five children, a niece and nephew. His house was not that badly damaged, but the building next door hangs over it at a perilous angle, threatening to collapse. No one has come to remove it.
Nigel Fisher, the U.N. coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti, said Tuesday that about 800,000 people remained in camps, down to about half its highest mark. He defended what he said was “incremental progress” in efforts to repair Haiti.
“We can’t rebuild Haiti. We have to transform it,” Fisher said. “Haiti cannot be transformed in just one year, or even two.”