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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A year after deadly earthquake, Haitians feel ‘abandoned’

By Widlore Mérancourt and Amanda Coletta Washington Post

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Guismet Dorvilier spent six years building a house for his family in Corail, a remote community on the coast of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula. Then, last August, a powerful earthquake struck, grinding its hard concrete walls – his “life’s work” – into rubble.

Now, one year later, Dorvilier, a public school director, is still living with eight family members under a plastic sheet. His neighbors are, too. His school – one of seven in Corail that was pulverized by the quake – has not been rebuilt, and the new school year is just weeks away.

“The state has abandoned us,” Dorvilier said.

His strife is emblematic of the morass across much of Haiti’s southwest one year after the 7.2-magnitude quake hit on Aug. 14, killing more than 2,200 people, injuring 12,000 and flattening tens of thousands of homes and buildings in an area that was still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

Residents have been frustrated by a recovery and rebuilding effort that has advanced at a glacial pace, stymied by spiraling gang violence in the capital, political instability, a global economic slowdown, donor fatigue and the emergence of other crises around the world to command more attention – and dollars.

After the quake, the United Nations appealed for $187 million. Donors contributed $77 million – less than half.

“In meetings, NGOs say that there are too many problems in the world right now, like the war in Europe and the coronavirus,” said Silvera Guillaume, a civil protection official stationed in Les Cayes, a coastal city that was hit hard by the temblor. “And that’s why there are fewer investments in the south.”

The result is that Haitians feel forgotten, forced to adopt measures meant to be temporary but that they fear could be permanent. Thousands of displaced families are living in encampments or under tarps. Roads are inaccessible. Battered buildings, including schools and hospitals, await repair or demolition.

Sandra Lamarque, the Haiti operations coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said access to health care in the southwest was already limited before the quake, and there hasn’t been a sustainable reconstruction effort for facilities that were damaged or destroyed.

Of the 1,250 schools that were damaged or destroyed, 38 have been rebuilt. Teachers have tried giving lessons under trees or flimsy tents that provide little, if any, protection from the rain. That has left more than 250,000 children without “adequate” access to education, according to UNICEF.

In Corail, Dorvilier said, a man offered his house as a temporary school. But in April, he kicked the 290 students and their teachers out. The house had sustained damage during the quake, and he wanted to begin repairing it.

“Our only hope to reopen this year is an NGO that promised to rebuild a better provisional school,” Dorvilier said. “The parents of our students cannot contribute. … They cannot buy books for their children, and a lot come to school without shoes.”

Last year’s earthquake was stronger than the temblor that killed more than 220,000 here in 2010, but it caused less damage because its epicenter was farther from Port-au-Prince, the densely populated capital.

Still, it struck many remote and hard-to-access towns and the Caribbean nation’s breadbasket.

The response has been complicated by soaring hunger, endemic poverty, intermittent fuel shortages, rising gang violence and political instability that worsened with the still-unsolved assassination in July 2021 of President Jovenel Moïse.

One year later, on almost every indicator, the trends are heading in the wrong direction.

Inflation has skyrocketed to 26 percent. The number of people facing acute food insecurity has grown. Those affected by the quake were already among Haiti’s most food-insecure.

Violent gangs have tightened their grip over swaths of Port-au-Prince and the main artery to the south, terrorizing Haitians of all stations with rampant kidnapping. A truce, brokered in the immediate aftermath of the quake to allow aid to pass, has long since expired.

That has left aid groups few options but to fly or travel by boat to reach quake-shattered areas. The gangs also control some ports; private contractors who transport fuel, medicines or other materials to the south have jacked up their prices to compensate for the safety risks.

“It’s a headache to work in such a situation,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF’s Haiti director. “We have to admit this.”

Haiti’s interim government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry has pledged to crack down on the gang violence, but there has been no change. The Haitian justice system’s investigation into Moïse’s assassination, meanwhile, has effectively ground to a halt.

“It’s not as if during the response, you have these problems and you’ve seen them improve over the last year,” said Cara Buck, the Haiti director for Mercy Corps. “Not only have they not improved – they’re worsening.”

The effects of the security crisis in Port-au-Prince have had ripple effects in the quake-affected region.

In Corail, 32 farmers attempted to travel by boat to Port-au-Prince last month to sell fish and crops, but when their boat reached the coastal commune of Léogâne, it was taken over by armed bandits who tied the passengers up with rope, seized their merchandise and took the boat’s two motors, leaving the boat drifting in the water.

“These people are constantly asking me for help because they lost their equipment during the earthquake,” said Alex Maxcia, the principal mayor of Corail. “The insecurity is getting out of control, and now it’s even more difficult for them to sell their hard work in the context of rising inflation.”

Many here were keen to avoid the mistakes of the response to the 2010 earthquake. International agencies set aside more than $13 billion to respond to the disaster, but much of it was mismanaged and aid groups faced heavy criticism for failing to coordinate with local officials and to let them lead the response.

More than a decade later, some analysts say, the ghosts of 2010 might have made potential donors reluctant.

“After the [2021] earthquake, we didn’t have – like in 2010 – a huge amount of resources arriving in Haiti,” said Christian Cricboom, Haiti director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This is also because of the question of how the funds were used in 2010 and the fatigue of the donors regarding Haiti.”

That’s created a cruel irony.

“The situation in Haiti is deteriorating,” Cricboom said. “The needs are increasing but not necessarily the contributions.”