Little Has Changed Since Haiti Quake, Except Now There's Cholera

International aid workers blame lack of progress on chronic corruption.

November 12, 2010, 10:27 AM

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti Nov. 12, 2010— -- Port au Prince is a city frozen in Jan 12, 2010. Haitians refer to the earthquake as "the 12th." No other description is necessary. How could something so blatantly evident everywhere you look be forgotten? Incredibly, life goes on: children go to school, markets are packed, there's even evidence of a few repaired homes. But if there's a pervading architectural theme, it remains: destruction.

Life goes on, but the city looks the same. That rubble and that rusted rebar are like a geological formation in the city's landscape. An elderly woman rests on a giant clump of concrete as she makes her way up a hill balancing a huge bundle on her head. Kids in tattered clothes play tag amidst the new ruins. Where rubble spills out into the street, imperturbable pedestrians and cars detour around it, as if it were a downed limb or a pothole.

These days the destruction seems invisible to Haitians, but screams out to visitors.

Bacteria, wind and time have carted off that stench of rotting bodies, but no one's taken away all that debris. The presidential palace remains a sandwich of roof and ground floor -- everything in between now mashed inside.

There has been little progress. The UN has built fewer than 18,000 temporary shelters, and about 150 permanent structures since the quake. That's about one home for each 2000 people that died in the quake. The saddest part: some of the 1.3 million living in tent cities partly administered by the U.N., live better now than before. They now have access to clean water, latrines and often some sort of medical care. Those who live in the fetid slum called Cite Soleil, have little or no clean water, little food, almost no access to medical care, and essentially live in sewage every time the canal overflows. Many eat a single meal every day or two.

Why so little progress? Off the record, international aid workers blame Haiti's red tape and the scattering of those with experience and corruption. It takes an act of God, or a sizeable bribe to get aid and supplies out of the port. Many government bureaucrats were killed in the quake, many of the survivors who could afford to do so, left the country, and others who stayed took much more lucrative jobs with the non-government organizations.

Haiti Becomes a Ticking Time Bomb

Some like Leonard Doyle, the director of communications for the International Organization for Migration, blame the disarray on chronically corrupt government. "This is the legacy of 40-to-50 years of misrule of dictatorship and all that went with it, bringing people in and dumping them in slums and then ignoring them."

And all of that now has a direct impact on the cholera epidemic, "So now you have the poorest part of the western hemisphere, the most densely populated, with a time bomb ticking."

The time bomb? Cholera on the march. The government estimates there are now about 10,000 cases in Haiti, and about 650 deaths. The Haiti Epidemic Advisory System estimates there are likely 50,000 Haitians with cholera now, and thousands of deaths. Some are unable to get to clinics. The survival rate for those who receive treatment is 99%. The survival rate for those who don't is only 40%.

That leaves a shell of a country, administered largely by foreigners. You name the religion or the country and it's represented: polyglot UN? Check, big time. Billy Graham's charity Samaritan's Purse? Check. Cuban doctors? Check. Doctors Without Borders? Check.

And on it goes.

But amidst all that destruction, our team was struck, again and again, by the pride the Haitians (mostly women) take in their tents, shacks and cracked homes. We visited Nanette in the Petionville tent city above Port au Prince. It was during the rains from Hurricane Tomas, and we trudged and slipped with her up a muddy bluff to her "home," cheek to jowl with a 20-foot-deep latrine pit. The clay-like mud clung to our boots – they looked like brown snowshoes. She was barefoot, carrying her silent 18-month-old up the hill (most didn't bother wearing shoes). I had never experienced mud like that. To me it felt like something only experienced in the Flemish trenches in WWI.

We wanted to interview her in her home, but when she threw open the tarp, we realized that wouldn't be possible. The bed – up on cinderblocks and covered with a light blue spread – was made with military precision. Her few dishes were symmetrically stacked. There was a candle in the corner. Smaller than a prison cell, the tent was nearly immaculate. I could not understand how there was no mud inside. So we stepped back out into the rain – hoping to keep it that way. Every tent we saw – the same. It was hard to understand how people's interior space was so cared for while the outside was so horribly neglected – trash, feces, more trash, debris everywhere.

Another woman, Kathleen, took us to her tent. She'd lost her husband and her parents in the quake – and suffered terrible injuries to her back and arm. She slept on the floor while her three children shared the neat bed made almost regal with its mosquito netting. She used sacks of rocks to keep the tarp from blowing away. She kept her stack of two Bibles and some knickknacks on a plastic shelf near a bouquet of plastic flowers. And she slept on the floor to read the Bible at night while her three children slept. The tent was lively and warm, but Kathleen, seemed shut off -- still frozen in January 12th.

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