By Roger K. Lowe
Standing on a hillside in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the view is of tarps and tents stretched out amid the rubble and destruction in the neighborhood, down the hill and up the ridge on the other side, and on the ridge after that, and the ridge after that.
Families were cooking meals, resting or moving about the small makeshift shelters, most no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet. It felt like I and several others from the American Red Cross had wandered into their living rooms and were imposing in their lives, even though the Red Cross has been providing relief supplies to many of the 20,000 people in the Croix Deprez neighborhood of Port-au-Prince for more than four months.
The vast sea of these emergency shelters in this one neighborhood, like so many others throughout Port-au-Prince, shows how much has been accomplished since the Jan. 12 earthquake – and how so very much remains to be done over the months and years ahead.
In the hours after the earthquake, these hillsides were filled with debris, death and destruction, as concrete block buildings collapsed after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed more than 230,000 people and left as many as 1.5 million homeless.
In less than four months, the Red Cross and other relief groups provided tarps and tents to provide emergency shelter to most of the homeless. But it will be a long time before most of these families will be able to move into even transitional shelters with wood frames and metal roofs.
That’s because virtually every open space of land in Port-au-Prince is filled with these tarps and tents, and there’s no place to build the better temporary structures, much less more permanent housing. Work on the large numbers of needed shelters cannot begin until open land is identified by the Haitian government, which itself was directly impacted by the massive earthquake that severely damaged its offices and killed or injured many government officials.
There are promising indications of progress. The streets were filled with cars and lined with roadside stands where people were selling almost any kind of good imaginable: clothing, fruit, cooked food, soap, toothpaste and cookstoves. Children in school uniforms walked along the street in mid-afternoon, another sign of hope as some schools have reopened.
One Red Cross staffer told of a Haitian mother in her early 40s who brought her young child to a Red Cross clinic, where the mother commented that it was the first time her child had ever seen a doctor. And, she added, it was her first time, too.
Haiti was one of the poorest nations in this part of the world even before the earthquake, and aid groups are dealing with longstanding shelter, hunger and health issues. Ironically, some people are getting more food and better health care now than they were before the earthquake.
And that fact complicates the relief effort. The United Nations said last week that about 40 percent of the houses in Port-au-Prince are safe, but that only about half of them are occupied. Red Cross staff in Haiti believe that one factor may be that some Haitians believe they are more likely to get free food, water, health care and other relief supplies in a camp, so they don’t want to leave to return to their homes.
The American Red Cross has raised more than $450 million for Haiti relief and recovery, and that money, so generously donated by the American people, is helping Haitian earthquake survivors today. The Red Cross has spent $112 million so far as part of what we estimate will be $200 million for emergency relief in the first 12 months. The rest of the money will be spent over the next several years on long-term recovery, with the priorities of shelter, water and sanitation, health, financial assistance to rebuild livelihoods and disaster preparedness.
Now, even as we wait for land to be freed up so we can begin building the sturdier shelters so desperately needed by Haitians, the Red Cross is working on disaster preparedness in the camps as hurricane season approaches, providing education materials on HIV and malaria, and distributing hygiene kits with enough soap, shampoo and other materials to last a family a month. We are also working with a Haitian micro-finance organization to give financial assistance to some women-owned businesses and families that have taken in others left homeless by the earthquake.
What took seconds for the earthquake to destroy will take the collective efforts of many aid groups and governments years to rebuild. And throughout that time, there will be the continuing contrast between the progress that has been made and the stark reminders of how immense the needs are in Haiti.
Roger K. Lowe, a former Dispatch reporter and Washington bureau chief, is senior vice president of communications at the American Red Cross.