Four Years Later, Haiti’s Troubled Recovery Haunts Its Future

Grim anniversary marked by slim progress and renewed aid calls

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Swoan Parker / Reuters

A Haitian girl walks through a camp for people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 3, 2013.

Four years after an earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, capital of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, killing more than 100,000 people, pushing 2.3 million into homelessness and reducing tens of thousands of structures to mere matchsticks, Haiti slowly continues its resurrection from ruin.

Port-au-Prince has rebounded to an extent, considering its airport, roads and seaport were unusable or barely functional, hampering the quick influx of aid and personnel. But the simultaneous collapse of its political system and public-health infrastructure, among other sectors wracked by endemic corruption, made a bad situation worse for its 10 million people. At the time, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it “unprecedented” and “overwhelming.” And in many regards, as international relief organizations renew their calls for attention and resources in hopes of highlighting slim progress and a mélange of challenges ahead, that hasn’t changed.

Billions of dollars in promised aid haven’t yet been dispersed and may never trickle down far enough for victims to feel it. A new action plan by the U.N. found that at least 70% of Haitians lack access to electricity, 600,000 are food-insecure and 23% of children are out of primary schools. At least 172,000 people remain in 306 displacement camps, down significantly from a peak of 1.5 million, but often with little or no access to safe water, sanitation and waste disposal. Amnesty International claims that many camps are at risk of flooding during hurricane season and their residents are privy to forced evictions.

(MORE: The Money We Give to Quake Victims Could Be Better Spent Before Disaster Hits)

Newer homes might shield them from storms, but not necessarily another earthquake. Advancements in construction have been implemented, like the new commercial building code that brings repairable or new structures up to global seismic standards, but government bandwidth needed to enforce it is weak. Many people don’t have the means to rebuild to code and, as reported in a study last year by the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering, most construction is done on unstable soil and without an engineer or architect. Rebar has made its way into some of the several thousand homes have been rebuilt, but few are stronger than the shoddy ones that fell four years ago.

Haiti’s economy is propped up on foreign aid and investment, namely an oil-for-produce alliance with Venezuela’s Petrocaribe, and a large portion of its population relies on farming to make a living yet remains at the mercy of poor policies and turbulent weather. A severe drought and back-to-back punches of hurricanes in 2012 led to a poor harvest in 2013, pushing food insecurity back up. And the country is still reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic, begun with the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal months after the quake and responsible for about 8,000 deaths.

Few perhaps understand the bumpy road ahead more than Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. In a Miami Herald interview, he said 186 miles of roads have been paved (in a country nearly the size of Vermont) since the quake. But even with the rise of businesses, health centers, sports arenas, airports, schools and neighborhoods, Lamothe admits that a deep lack of trust and transparency in Haiti’s redevelopment has stymied recovery. But hopes have not been wholly erased: “We have a country that’s starting to believe we can get back on our feet. We’re starting to believe in ourselves that it can happen.”

Rebuilding a city, and in most aspects a country, takes unwavering commitment, funding and accountability. Pre-quake Haiti, flush with systemic weaknesses unlikely to be kneaded out before its next elections, has made reconstruction difficult than it was for other communities stricken by intense water, wind or underground movement. Its location on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault keeps it at perpetual risk of another powerful rupture, and fears remain it would crumble similarly if proper construction isn’t prioritized. Haitians are a resilient people, but the last four years show that’s a price neither they, nor the rest of the world, can afford.