For nearly three years after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, Haiti’s main public square was a densely crowded tent city packed with makeshift huts made from cardboard, plywood and bedsheets in the shadow of a ruined presidential palace.
Walk through the Champ de Mars today and the displaced survivors of the quake who once called it home are long gone—replaced by ice cream vendors, novice student drivers and a new government administrative corridor in the center of the city.
The razed palace still hasn’t been rebuilt, but several of the 44 public buildings that crumbled in less than a minute, including the Supreme Court, have been reconstructed, while a new $89 million Parliament complex is under way even as lawmakers flee downtown Port-au-Prince for the hills due to rising violence.
As a disaster-prone Haiti prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of an unimaginable catastrophe, Haitians and the international community that pledged to help the country rebuild can point to a few signs of progress.
But a decade of political and economic aftershocks and billions of dollars in mismanaged and unaccounted-for aid have left the country struggling with its recovery, and no more ready today to withstand another massive tremor than it was the day the 7.0 magnitude quake struck.
“What has been done is cosmetic,” said Leslie Voltaire, an architect and urban planner who was involved in reconstruction planning in the early days of the recovery. “When I am going through the city and looking, the masons have the same habits. They are building the same way they used to. There is no control, no supervision by public works or by the municipality to see if they are doing it right.
“I am afraid another big earthquake will produce the same results. We have not even had drills in the schools or in the public administration to know what to do, how to react when you have an earthquake,” he added. “So we have not learned, really.”
The earthquake, which lasted 35 seconds and was followed by several aftershocks, left an estimated 316,000 dead and 1.5 million injured. More than 1.5 million Haitians were left homeless after more than 400,000 houses crumbled into broken slabs of concrete and twisted steel. In the aftermath, donors and the Haitian government promised better construction, free public housing and a revitalization of Haiti’s devastated economy.
None of it has materialized as envisioned.
Ten years later, the Parliament has not voted on a new quake-resistant building code. Some of the expensive and ambitious projects promised, like a new and still unfinished $100 million general hospital and the $300 million Caracol Industrial Park, have yet to realize their potential, and the economy, which saw some growth after an estimated $7.61 billion in humanitarian and reconstruction aid was pumped in during the first two years after the earthquake, is in ruins.
“The hope for a new day in Haiti was something people really believed in and really engaged in,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, which pledged $2 billion in aid at the International Donors Conference at the United Nations in New York in late March 2010.
“Unfortunately what I find today is that the energy of the donor community [compared with] right after the earthquake and today, has truly changed,” Moreno said in an interview. “The enthusiasm to see change in Haiti has waned over time.”
The earthquake decimated the southern portion of Haiti, leveling more than 100,000 buildings in metropolitan Port-au-Prince and the cities of Jacmel and Léogâne, where the epicenter was. A post-disaster assessment by the U.N. estimated the destruction at $7.9 billion.
At the 2010 donors’ conference in New York, 58 governments and organizations pledged $10.77 billion to reconstruct Haiti over 10 years and another $10.37 billion in recovery and humanitarian assistance for the first two years.
Questions about what happened to the money dominate many discussions, and an effort was recently launched by Dr. Paul Farmer, the former special adviser to the U.N. Secretary-General, to get up-to-date information on the disbursements of the two pots of money. The exercise has proven difficult, with billions of dollars in pledges still unaccounted for.
Six of the top 10 donors did not respond to Farmer’s request, making it impossible to draw conclusions about the disbursement trend, Farmer’s U.N. office said. Only Spain, France, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank responded. The six that didn’t respond: Venezuela, Canada, the European Community, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Brazil and the International Monetary Fund.
An analysis of the $10.37 billion pledged for 2010-12 did show that more than half, $6.43 billion, of the pledges committed for humanitarian and recovery assistance was disbursed. This includes direct budget support from a few countries to the Haitian government. But less than 10 percent of the $6.43 billion went directly to the Haitian government, and even less, 0.6 percent, went to Haitian businesses and organizations, Farmer’s office noted.
Farmer’s office did not factor in the more than $800 million in debt forgiveness Venezuela, the Inter-American Development Bank and other international financial institutions provided to Haiti after the quake.
“Though the post-earthquake narrative was that the $10.7 billion that donors had pledged would put Haiti on the path to a better future, it did not cover much more than the cost of the economic and physical damage incurred,” Farmer’s office said in an analysis titled Lessons from Haiti.
Nowhere are the broken promises of reconstruction more apparent than in the squalid camps that continue to exist today, and where on Jan. 12 some Haitians will mark 10 years of living under a tarp or behind pieces of rusty tin, with no running water, no latrines, no electricity and no security.
The makeshift settlements are no longer in plain sight on the Champ de Mars or the public soccer fields. Today, they are mostly invisible throughout the capital as residents scrape out a living in traffic-clogged Port-au-Prince.
Yet the “cities” have outlasted torrential rain, heavy winds, a deadly cholera epidemic that killed at least 10,000 people, and the seven governments and four presidents that have failed them.
“Nothing has changed. On the contrary, it’s gotten worse,” said Cami Etienne, 56, a father of four who lives in a hilltop tent city in the Fragneauville neighborhood at the end of a dirt road in the city of Delmas. “With each passing day, we cannot buy anything, even the basic amenities that we need in order to live. We can’t even afford water.”
Etienne said he never imagined his life would come to this after he was forced to run out into the streets with one of his children as his home shook violently and then collapsed during the quake.
“It’s an awful life when you can’t give your children a house to live in,” he said, standing at the camp’s entrance where clothes hung on lines in the open air.
Stopping mid-sentence, he turned around and pointed out his tent: pieces of raggedy tarp fastened together. “This is not me.”
The camp has no name, but the vestiges of early relief efforts by some of the non-governmental organizations that rushed to Haiti are still visible.
There are weathered but still sturdy benches in a common sitting area painted in pink with artistic accents. There is also a play area for the many children, who on this particular day are more interested in their game of hide-and-seek than the pink plastic tunnel on the ground.
Many of the decaying tin shacks are painted in a variety of colors. There is little concrete-block construction.
Christian Mervilus, 41, said he moved to the area a year ago from another encampment in Faustin to escape the recurrent rapes and killings.
“I was living in a tent and I came here and I am still in a tent,” he said. “If we had money, we would not be here.”
Mervilus said that after 10 years, he hasn’t seen any serious efforts to help Haitians like himself.
Most of the 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquake are back in neighborhoods, a feat that the International Organization for Migration says should be recognized.
The U.N. agency, which has been in charge of tracking the number of internally displaced people and relocating them back into neighborhoods, says there are 32,788 people today in 22 camps. The Delmas camp where Mervilus and Etienne live is not among the official sites.
Also not to be found on that official tally: the 300,000-plus people living in the biggest post-quake informal settlement, Canaan. The decision to exclude Canaan, which derives its name from the biblical promised land, was made in 2013 by IOM at the request of the Haitian government’s Housing and Public Buildings Construction Unit.
A sprawling area once deemed unacceptable for an industrial park, Canaan is located 10 miles north of the capital. It was settled after the U.S. government, actor Sean Penn and U.N. aid organizations pressured then-President René Préval to expropriate land for the state to use for quake survivors living in areas considered to be at high risk for flooding and landslides.
The area was promised as a place where quake survivors would be able to rebuild their lives with permanent homes as part of a newly developed community offering running water, electricity and nearby factory jobs. However, as soon as Haitians learned the government had expropriated the land, they moved in. Some were quake survivors who were relocated by aid agencies. Others were squatters who bought illegally sold plots.
The permanent housing never got built, so residents started to build their own, constructing permanent concrete homes throughout the area.
Today it includes more than a dozen communities—some controlled by gangs—and is bordered by two national roads.
“We have created the biggest slum in the Caribbean,” said Voltaire, who has done consultant work in Canaan for the government.
Haitian government spokesman Eddy Jackson Alexis did not respond to a Miami Herald request to meet with Clément Bélizaire, executive director of the Housing and Public Buildings Construction Unit, which has been working with the U.N. to build roads and other infrastructure in Canaan and is overseeing the reconstruction of public buildings.
While Canaan is the most vivid example of Haitians finding their own solution without government help, it is not the only one where Haitians have taken it upon themselves to try to set permanent roots.
Teren Toto, Toto’s Land, sits on a hill along Avenue Albert Jode not far from the U.S. Embassy on the border of the cities of Tabarre and Delmas in the capital’s metropolitan area.
“Everybody is fighting to take care of themselves,” said Jean-Canel Clessidor, 37, who says he moved to Toto after the earthquake. “If you are going to wait around for the government to do for you, then you will never find a leader who will help you.”
Clessidor said he thought his stay in Toto would be temporary. But after three months of watching the wave of charities offering food, tarps and temporary shelters made of plywood but no permanent housing, he gave up.
“Now, we don’t have any hope of anything changing,” he said.
Many in the camps say their hope for change is not with the leaders who have time and again failed them and use them as political pawns, but with God.
“Nobody sees us,” Sadrack Charles, 32, said with desperation in his voice. “Imagine I am a young man, a young man who can work, and with all you have to offer, you’re not working. Every day you wake up and sit here, not serving a purpose. Every year that passes is a year lost.”
Charles, whose house is sturdier than most, said he built it sheet by sheet, sometimes sacrificing a meal to use the money for the zinc.
“When you are looking at the situation of the country, everyone has suffered. Foreigners are afraid to come invest,” he said. “We don’t live well. ... The country is finished.”
Behind Charles’ shack is a small canal. “When it rains, it’s miserable for us. It’s nothing but,” he said.
Manette Francois, 58, said that before the earthquake her life “was beautiful.” Sure, it was tough with nine children, she said, but she had a job as a maid.
She lost her job as well as her home in the earthquake.
“If you see where I am living now, when it rains, I have to take a basin to collect the water,” she said.
Perched at the top of the hill, where residents have laid sandbags to stop mudslides and help them climb the hillside, Francois’ tin shack doubles as living quarters and neighborhood grocery store. In a back room, a blue bucket is nestled up in the tarp-covered ceiling to catch rainwater.
The brewing humanitarian crisis, skyrocketing inflation now hovering at 20 percent annually, and the drastic fall of the domestic currency, the gourde, have meant that her customers can’t even afford to purchase a candle, much less a bag of rice.
Francois said she would like to get out of the camp, but she doesn’t see how she would even sustain herself if she were to move back into a regular neighborhood.
Junior Alexis, one of Teren Toto’s two leaders, called the camp “a tiny country within another country,” referring to the lack of government and services and to residents’ inhumane existence.
“The Haitian government does not respect people’s rights,” he said. “There are people here who want to live as human beings.”
The camp is densely packed with shacks, separated by narrow dirt paths that are one hurricane away from being washed away. While many Haitians are still living in tin shacks, others have managed to build sturdier homes from concrete blocks.
Located off the main road and up a winding hill, Teren Toto is the largest of six makeshift settlements that make up Village Caradeux. According to 2017 camp estimates from the International Organization for Migration, there were 10,162 displaced individuals living in Caradeux, and of them, 4,759 lived in Toto.
In any other country that had experienced a disaster like Haiti’s, Alexis said, the population would have recovered already. But not in Haiti.
“The people did not anticipate this,” he said. “The people thought they were going to get out of the first phase they were in.”
Alexis, 32, earns his living as a motorcycle taxi driver. He’s among the rare few in the camp with steady employment.
A few years ago, IOM tried to clear the camp. Aid workers showed up accompanied by Haitian National Police officers. Residents, who served as their own security watch, fought back, using trees and rocks to prevent the police and workers from entering.
IOM Project Officer Marguerite Jean said it is true Caradeux was targeted for relocation purposes, but the registration required to relocate people and the necessary funding “at some point was no longer available.”
A Haitian government official, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed the relocation attempt but said it was called off by a powerful lawmaker who warned that the people in the camps were his constituents and were not to be touched.
“Every five years they come here and mislead us,” Alexis said about Haiti’s politicians. President Michel “Martelly sat here and misled us. After Martelly, Jovenel Moïse came to a school we have over here. ... He said, ‘There are a bunch of guys who are playing dominoes. I am going to teach you, I am going to take you out of playing dominoes,’ ” Alexis recalled.
“Where are they today? Every house has dominoes ... because they do not have anything else to do.”
Reconstruction Takes Time
IOM Director Giuseppe Loprete says he understands the frustrations of those still in the camps, but there is no template for dealing with a disaster of the magnitude of Haiti’s.
“It’s not just Haiti. Reconstruction, rebuilding a country takes years, decades, we can say,” said Loprete. “We can compare some places around the world. ... Five years after the tsunami [in Indonesia] we were creating housing for people still displaced.”
He acknowledges that more progress could have been achieved in Haiti if it were not for the political instability and “if the environment was more functional, if there were more political decisions taken in due time ... with better use of resources.”
“We feel like we’re going backwards to early 2004,” he said, referring to the period when a bloody rebellion forced the president’s ouster and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping mission. “Instead of 10 years later, there are people here thinking we are living the situation of instability like five, six years before [the quake] in terms of violence, criminality, everything.”
IOM has had its own difficulties attracting funding to shut down camps. Its most recent donation was $300,000 from the South Korean government, which it has used to clear camps in Léogâne, where a previously unknown fault line led to the earthquake.
“No one now is interested in funding these activities,” Loprete said.
That wasn’t always the case. In 2011, IOM partnered with the Haitian government’s housing unit to launch a pilot relocation program to return thousands of quake survivors residing in six camps back to the 16 neighborhoods they came from.
After relocating more than 35,000 homeless families, Canada’s Foreign Affairs office stepped in and donated $18 million to help more people voluntarily return. Under the relocation program, camp residents received a voucher, equivalent to about $500 at the time, to rent a place for a year.
Felipe Munevar, director and representative for the U.N. Office for Project Services Haiti, said the government’s camp relocation program “was a success.” But he also noted one reality.
“There was never going to be enough money to really address, you know, all of the potential beneficiaries that needed help,” said Munevar, whose agency helped quake survivors return home by repairing more than 1,200 damaged houses and by building 600 new housing units for those with titles.
Munevar said while the U.N. agency would have liked to build more houses, it was not easy when there were so many legal questions surrounding ownership of property that had been damaged or destroyed.
Some of the officials involved in the reconstruction say it was unreasonable for organizations, including aid agencies, to expect the government to build housing for people who did not have their own houses to begin with and were renters when the quake happened.
In a few instances, houses were built, the homes weren’t necessarily free and construction was problematic. In one government project, Lumane Casimir, where the 344-square-foot houses are the size of a hotel room, some apartments stayed empty because the construction was poorly done and it was located far away from schools, markets and churches. In recent years, some recipients have even decided to stop paying rent.
Still, residents in Teren Toto insist that the best thing the Haitian government can do for them is build them houses — right where they currently are.
They are not interested, they said, in the camp relocation program. They note that the money IOM provided to help them rent a place a few years ago was roughly the equivalent of $500 U.S., which is even less in today’s battered economy.
“And after that, when the house’s lease is due?” Alexis said. “Those people will be in the streets.”
The solution, he said, “is good, durable housing. What they can do for us inside Village Caradeux is good construction.”
Moreno, the IDB president, said donors really wanted to address the housing issue in Haiti but in the face of weak institutions and the country’s unwillingness to address its land titling problem, it was difficult for some donors to make the investments.
“There was an earthquake, but there wasn’t an earthquake in the kind of institutional change that you need in Haiti to materialize a lot of this help, so that made it very difficult to deploy aid,” Moreno said. “We find ourselves now with literally a handful of the key donors.”
Reflecting on the past decade, Moreno said, there were two very different periods. The first was marked by the immediate response, and he and others saw that then-President Préval, who died in 2017, was “very committed.” The second came with Martelly and his hand-picked successor, Haiti’s current President Moïse, with his flagship “Caravan of Change” initiative to build roads in far-flung communities.
“Martelly came with a lot of energy and as I see it, was a lost promise in the end,” Moreno said. “This president had a lot of energy looking at the whole idea of the Caravan, which sounded like something I had never seen in Haiti before, which is put all of the resources the government has to go after the poorest communities.
“But somehow there are always all these big efforts that do not have staying power, either for political reasons or execution reasons,” Moreno said. “This is the frustrating thing.”