A year after Haiti quake, there is hope despite the devastation

A worker carries crosses to be placed in Port-au-Prince as part of a memorial to the almost 230,000 people killed in the Haitian earthquake.
A worker carries crosses to be placed in Port-au-Prince as part of a memorial to the almost 230,000 people killed in the Haitian earthquake.
Posted: January 12, 2011

Cynthia Emmanuel hoped the pacifier would soothe her infant son for the hour.

She and her husband, Philippe, had come to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Tuesday afternoon seeking solace in church ritual and comfort in Cardinal Justin Rigali's words on the first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. The couple's 2-year-old nephew was among the almost 230,000 killed last year when a 7.0-magnitude quake decimated the capital of Port-au-Prince.

"We want to remember our friends and family," said Cynthia Emmanuel, 35, who works at the University of Pennsylvania. "Last year at this time, we were wondering what happened to our family. Today, we are thinking about the ones who died and the ones who are still there, trying to rebuild their lives."

That rebuilding has been agonizingly slow and, critics say, shamefully inadequate.

During the first weeks, the international response to one of the deadliest natural disasters in history was stunning. Volunteers from around the globe descended on the small Caribbean nation. Shipments of food, medical supplies, generators, tents, and clean water accumulated at the airport and in the ports so quickly and in such massive quantities that it took weeks to make a dent in the stockpiles.

Private donors poured millions into the country through the 20,000 nonprofit and faith-based organizations already operating there and countless independent groups and individuals who formed ad hoc missions. Governments pledged billions more and vowed to coordinate their efforts.

Poverty and despair

Before the earthquake, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, was already hobbled. Eighty percent of its 9.6 million people were living in poverty, half the population could neither read nor write, and the average life expectancy at birth was 29 years.

The dense capital, with 2.35 million people before the earthquake, had never had a sewage-treatment plant, and the public water system was limited and unreliable.

"We've seen some progress," said Anthony Coletta, chief medical officer of the Holy Redeemer Health System, one of numerous Philadelphia-area institutions that contributed generously to relief efforts last year.

Coletta and a group of colleagues made four trips to Haiti after the earthquake, working in a clinic near Port-au-Prince. Local Haitian doctors were hired to staff the clinic, he said, and volunteers helped neighbors plant vegetable gardens.

"But it's still Haiti," Coletta said. "There is still the same abject poverty and despair."

Another nongovernmental agency, Water Missions International, has installed 156 water-purification systems since the disaster. "We've brought potable water to a minimum of 250,000 people," said Pat Haughney, director of international programs for the group.

"The Philadelphia area responded wonderfully and continues to respond," said Rusty Smith, a Philadelphia businessman who volunteers for the mission. About 10 percent of the $3.6 million in donations came from the Philadelphia area, he said.

This month, Oxfam issued a report criticizing the lack of coordination among aid groups and slow progress rebuilding the country.

The respected humanitarian group charged the international community with failing to support good governance in Haiti, and "bypassing local and national authorities in the delivery of assistance."

It also held the Haitian government responsible for failing to provide leadership.

Despite all the grand promises and pledges, most of the 1.3 million who lost their homes last January remain stranded in overcrowded tent camps. About 95 percent of the rubble still clogs the streets of Port-au-Prince.

But Angela Bruce-Raeburn, Oxfam America's senior policy adviser for humanitarian response in Haiti, said it would be unrealistic to expect that after only one year, the country would be well on the way to recovery.

And there have been significant victories."The emergency response," she said, "kept millions of people alive."

In October, cholera broke out, claiming more than 3,000 lives so far. But without the massive rescue efforts, she said, the disease would surely have started much earlier and spread far more quickly.

"It's important," said Carol McLaughlin of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, "not to discount the progress that has been made."

McLaughlin said two million Haitian children were vaccinated against measles and tetanus.

No humane analysis can conclude that the tragedy was beneficial. Still, McLaughlin said, the international attention it inspired may ultimately prove to be a blessing.

For decades, Haiti has been dependent on outside aid. During McLaughlin's first visit 20 years ago, she asked a Haitian friend what he wished for his country. She remembers his words vividly: "To end an era when decisions are made about us, far from us, without us."

In the current situation, she said, "we should reflect on how outside organizations can allow the Haitian people to fulfill their own dreams."

Members of the Haitian American community say well-meaning organizations have overlooked them, too.

"A lot of the major NGOS have not taken advantage of the experts within our community," said Yve-car Momperousse of the Haitian Professionals of Philadelphia. "The diasporic community wants to be involved. For us, it's not just business, it's personal."

Love and solidarity

Throughout Tuesday's Mass, the Emmanuels' baby fussed. His tiny complaint echoed through the vast cathedral as Rigali spoke of love and solidarity with the Haitian community.

"We remember all the work that has been done after this extraordinary, extraordinary catastrophe," he said, and he reflected on a passage from the Book of Lamentations about despair leading to hope.

In the front pew, a group of Haitian community leaders listened somberly. Among them were a doctor who does bioengineering research at Drexel, a drug-and-alcohol counselor, an art curator with a gallery in Old City, and Felix Augustin, the Haitian consul general, who had come down from New York City.

On the way out of the cathedral, a Haitian American exporter stopped the diplomat to say he had collected 60,000 French books to donate to Haitian orphans.

"That is wonderful," said Augustin. "We must talk" and make plans to discuss how to deliver the books.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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