PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After you get beyond the fact that Haiti, particularly Port-au-Prince, the capital, is a modern-day ruin — which is not easy to do when around each corner you encounter a more devastating scene — there is the amazing vitality, ingenuity and creativity of the Haitian people.
This ability, this undying resilience, was evident from one end of the city to another. Here and there were welders, their torches melding torn metal; masons mending broken walls; carpenters repairing doors and roof tops; painters putting a fresh gloss on ravaged buildings; and the countless vendors setting up shop in front of totally damaged structures.
And one month after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ripped apart the country, the spirit of recovery is seen in the hundreds of people walking along the streets and roads, many of them dressed in white, on their way to various sites of mourning, ready to remember the dead and dying as they celebrate another day of living.
“We are determined to put our homes and our lives back together,” said a young man, who stood with his mother and father outside a tent where bricks provided a makeshift foundation. “Our home was completely destroyed, so this will have to do until we can do better.”
How long that will take is anybody’s guess, though some planners believe things could be back to normal in four or five years. Back to normal isn’t exactly a hopeful prognosis, since even in the best of times Haiti was an impoverished nation, reeling on the brink at the mercy of natural disasters and corruption.
But it should be remembered that this isn’t the first time the people have had to dig themselves out of devastation, to deal with the challenges of recovery. They are used to pulling together after cruel hurricane seasons.
For a reporter who visited Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and stood as an eyewitness to the collapse of the World Trade Center, spending four days traveling with a delegation of African-American media representatives amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding neighborhoods is to experience a tragedy of almost incomparable proportions. The delegation was led by Ron Daniels, Ph.D., president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, who and has a long and productive relationship with Haiti through his Haiti Support Project.
It was mind boggling to see the president’s palace, an architectural wonder, its twin domes crushing the floors below; the beautiful National Cathedral where President René Préval was inaugurated in 2006 with only the historic statues as a reminder of its splendor; and all of the city’s municipal buildings in silent piles of dusty cement with rods of steel protruding like rusty fingers.
The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why did some buildings remain standing while others crumbled? “Many of the buildings that collapsed were built without consideration of the building codes,” said Patric Delatour, Haiti’s Minister of Tourism, a trained architect who studied at Howard University. “And, yes, that includes the presidential palace because it was constructed in 1920 when there were no building codes.”
Delatour, whose parents were killed in the disaster, has the awesome task of leading the recovery effort.
Thousands of businesses and homes did not meet specifications. Fortunately, thousands of lives were spared because people were not at home or asleep when the earthquake rattled the land at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12. One concern for Haitian construction companies is how to build a home or other edifice capable of withstanding an earthquake and, at the same time, hurricanes, which most of the current buildings that fell were constructed to endure. It will take several years and $3 billion to complete the recovery, Delatour speculated, adding “it could be much more because it’s hard to factor in everything at the moment.”
Meanwhile, it is estimated that some three million Haitians are homeless, dwelling in tents and other makeshift quarters, often waiting desperately for decent shelter, food and medical attention. Nothing was more depressing than to see the long line of injured people outside one of the city’s few functioning hospitals, where emergency rescue units have set up tents to provide additional space for the injured.
“We can handle maybe 500 patients a day here,” said Alix Lasseque, M.D., executive director of the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince. “But we are terribly understaffed and we can’t perform major surgeries here.”
Even so, there are moments in which something has to be done to salvage a life, as it was with one patient who had to undergo an amputation after a large piece of concrete smashed one of his legs. “He’s doing all right now,” said translator Alex George. “They have him on antibiotics to help him with the pain and to guard against infections.”
This amputee is lucky not to be among the more than 230,000 estimated dead.
Food and water distribution remain troubling challenges to the various organizations, although it has helped somewhat that women are now given coupons to pick up such foodstuff as a 50-pound bag of Haitian rice, which they balance on their heads as if it were a pillow. At other points, the distribution is not so orderly and the crush of people, a veritable stampede to catch packages of protein snacks tossed from trucks, presents a great danger to the weak, aged and disabled.
When it comes to shelter, the distribution of food and water, and tending to the medical needs of the people, Carlene Dei, head of the USAID mission, said great strides had been made, “but there is still so much more to be done.”
Overall, Dei said, referring to the relationship between her organization and the Haitian government, “We can do better than we’re doing…what’s needed is a whole new paradigm.”
Delatour has given considerable thought to that new paradigm, especially in reference to the rebuilding of Haiti. “You see, I’m an optimist,” he told the African American delegation. “For me the glass is always half full, not half empty.”
The first thing that needs to be done is rebuild the waterfront and the city’s infrastructure, he continued, rising from behind his desk and facing a wall-size map of Port-au-Prince. “Then we can begin to deal with the 17 ministries which have been destroyed. Customs, the churches, the schools all have to be rebuilt. We lost more than 8,000 schools. There is the problem of demolition and what’s to be done with the rubble,” he said.
These are just a few of the problems President Préval has given to the energetic minister and Préval seems more than equal to the task.
“No, we didn’t get a chance to meet with the president but our session with Delatour was extremely beneficial,” said Daniels, who led the African-American delegation. “He has promised to be helpful in our future initiatives and we will certainly need his and the government’s cooperation in most of these endeavors.”
Like Delatour, Daniels is an optimist, but both men will need more than a half-glass outlook to deal with the enormous recovery and rebuilding of Haiti, particularly with the rainy season and hurricanes looming on the horizon.