In Port-au-Prince, a radio blares from speakers in front of a guy selling pirated CDs on Delmas, a main street in the Haitian capital. Women sitting along the side of the road hawk everything from vegetables to cigarettes to pharmaceuticals. Overloaded tap-taps, the pickup trucks that serve as the main form of public transportation here, chug up the hill.
The scene is one that’s remarkable for being unremarkable: Though it occurred this week, it could just as easily have been Port-au-Prince two years ago, before a massive earthquake destroyed much of the capital.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck on Jan. 12, 2010, and killed, by some estimates, 300,000 people and left more than 2 million homeless.
Two years later, although hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still living in makeshift camps, the country has come a long way.
The effects of the earthquake are still present everywhere in Port-au-Prince: the tent encampments, the cracked buildings, the empty lots. Schools operate in open plywood classrooms.
But the most visible piles of rubble have been hauled away, and life has returned to a rhythm similar to what was here before the quake.
President Michel Martelly says Haiti had huge challenges even before the disaster. The pop star turned politician took office last year. Martelly says his administration is finally in place and moving forward to tackle the country’s problems.
“You go by the airport, we have already inaugurated one phase of the airport,” he says. “You go by the streets, you see some camps are being emptied out. Now, we need everyone’s participation, everyone’s input. We need to better use the money that’s given, channel that money properly, and we’ll be heading in the right direction.”
Three major hotel projects are under way in Port-au-Prince. A giant industrial park is being built in the north of the country.
Martelly has launched a program to provide free education to almost 1 million kids by taxing international phone calls and remittances. Despite some of the funds allegedly going missing, the program remains extremely popular.
Misery In The Camps
But the challenges for Martelly and Haiti as a whole remain huge. Infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. A cholera outbreak that’s struck a half-million people and killed thousands needs to be tackled. And many earthquake victims are still living in squalid encampments in Port-au-Prince.
For the past two years, Gerline Rousole has been sharing a canvas tent with her three brothers and her 7-year-old son in Place Pigeon, a displacement camp outside the National Palace. She says the camp is hell.
“It’s been really, really tough out here in this hot sun. In the daytime, we cannot stay inside our tents because it’s so hot. When we go out to try to find some shade, thieves come with razors and steal our valuables. And at night, I can’t sleep because I’m afraid of robbers,” she says.
Rousole is 22 years old but looks far older. Like most of the thousands of other residents of this camp, she bathes in the street by pouring water over herself from a basin. She says people are living here like pigs.
Two years ago, Rousole didn’t just lose her home in the quake, she lost both of her parents.
“The worst thing is that if my parents were still alive, I wouldn’t be here,” she says.
Providing For The Most Vulnerable
And many people have moved out of the camps — from a peak of 1.5 million to 500,000 now, according to Leonard Doyle with the International Organization for Migration in Haiti.
“It’s very, very tough for [those who remain in the camps], but it’s quite a dramatic drop in numbers,” he says.
The conditions in the camps are difficult, and Doyle says residents who had any resources at all have left.
“It left behind a population that’s more vulnerable, poorer, more difficult to resettle,” he says.
Some camps are being ordered to close. Over the past few weeks, authorities cleared two large camps in the commercial hub of Petionville. Residents were offered $500 vouchers to pay for one year’s rent anywhere else.
In the wake of the 2010 disaster, international donors pledged billions of dollars to help Haiti recover and rebuild. That money provided emergency medical care, plastic tarps and water service to the camps. It paid to clear the streets of rubble. At some of the organized camps, what used to be rows of white tents are now rows of plywood shelters.
Years Of Rebuilding
But Haiti doesn’t appear transformed. The roads are still terrible. Earthquake debris still clogs prime housing lots. The destroyed National Palace has yet to be demolished.
“I think we need to be careful not to hold Haiti to different standards, or higher standards, than we hold other countries to,” says Ken Merten, who was U.S. ambassador to Haiti when the 7.0-quake hit Port-au-Prince; he still holds the post today.
“If you look at European cities after World War II — places like Cologne and Rotterdam — they took 10 years-plus to rebuild,” he says. “I don’t see why we’d expect it to happen a whole lot faster here.”
For millions of Haitians, living conditions remain difficult. Jobs are scarce; there’s a shortage of housing; people struggle to feed their families.
But Merten and many people on the streets say there’s a sense now that Haiti is making progress and moving, slowly, toward a better place.