Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti - One Year After the Earthquake- 1/12/11


Delaware and Haiti are about the same size. Last year Haiti's population was estimated at approximately seven million. The country's demographic statistics reveal the effect of extreme poverty and an HIV/AIDS epidemic. These conditions have reduced life expectancy to 49.2 years, contributed to high infant mortality and general death rates, and slowed population growth.

Haiti's population is a young one, with 41 percent estimated to be between 0 and 14 years of age. Most Haitians are of African descent.

The National Cathedral - photo by David Albers

Today I heard that the people of Haiti gathered in a memorial tribute in Port au Prince, the city where so many died on that fateful afternoon one year ago. It seems that every family lost someone, a spouse, a sister, a child, a cousin or a friend in the earthquake. Haitians marched down empty, rubble-lined streets singing hymns and climbed broken buildings to hang wreaths of flowers. The nation held a minute of silence at 4:53 p.m., the moment when the earthquake ripped the ground on January 12, 2010. The government has stated its death toll estimate is more than 316,000.

Thousands gathered around the city to be with loved ones and pray. They flocked to the ruins of the once-towering national cathedral, to soccer stadium that served as an open-air morgue and later housed a tent camp, to parks, hillsides and the neighborhood centers.

Workers are still finding bodies in the rubble. Neighborhood-sized camps look like permanent shantytowns on the fields and plazas of the capital. A cholera epidemic that erupted outside the quake zone has killed more than 3,600 people, and an electoral crisis between President Rene Preval's ruling party and its rivals threatens to break an increasingly fragile political stability.

I have been wondering what it would be like to live in the earthquake portion of Haiti today. Tent camps were erected for people who lost their homes – they created little tent communities, some of them quite small, some of them very large, where an estimated one million people still live, unable to afford new homes.

If you live in a tent village with a million others what are your expenditures? No public utilities are available, no toilets, no telephones, no electricity, no running water. There is still the need for money for food and clothing.

Everyone has that desire for his or her own personal space. Many of us can seek refuge in our homes, in our bedroom. In the tent camps the living area is incredibly small, hot, constructed out of canvas and metal, and whatever else they could find. It is reported that less than 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, only 15 percent of the temporary housing that is needed has been built and relatively few permanent water and sanitation facilities have been constructed.

The current cholera epidemic is mostly in the extreme rural areas, in the mountains and in a river valley where the outbreak began. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of people who just weren't able to get to a treatment center in time.

This past week I watched a TV documentary about a private person from the US who took his personal 60-year-old plane and got the local people, who live on a mountaintop in Haiti, to create a landing strip for his aircraft so that he could bring medical personnel and supplies to help the people who have cholera. Many lives have been saved by the actions of this one man.

Cholera victims just need rehydration and antibiotics, and most people can be taken care of. But the problem is, so many people live out in rural areas far from treatment centers. Nearly 3,000 people have died of cholera and more than 100,000 were infected.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of political turmoil. They had an election for president in the fall, but the results are still disputed months later. There were all kinds of allegations of fraud. There was violence in the aftermath of it that shut this city down a couple of days last month, in December.

Another problem that has surfaced is that on the day of the earthquake the local prison collapsed and hundreds of seasoned criminals escaped. There are reports that they are intimidating people and taking control of some areas. The police have been trying to round them up and have re-arrested about 700 who are being detained in a facility where there is no room for a man to lie down, so the inmates have to sleep standing up. They report that their legs are swollen and that there is a lot of fighting within the facility.

The United States and many other countries have helped to rally international support for Haiti’s recovery and reconstruction.

Over the past year, countless lives have been saved and many Haitians affected by the earthquake now have better access to food, water and health care than they did before the disaster. However, rubble continues to clog the streets, too many people are still living in tents, and for so many Haitians progress has not come fast enough. It has been said that helping the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere recover from one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike our hemisphere will take years, if not decades.

From the slums of Port-au-Prince to the rural Central Plateau, this impoverished country continues to need assist. Right now 90 percent of the quake devastation still remains. Many people, including orphanages still live in tents and families struggle to survive on less than two dollars a day.

The bottom line is that the people of Haiti and the volunteers are living in nightmare conditions. Poverty, illness, famine, lack of adequate water, homelessness and an unstable government. But there are consistent reports of the stamina and courage of the residents who live there. In spite of their current conditions the majority maintain a sense of dignity and hope.

What to do? What to do? I don’t have the answer to that except that we should make sure that we keep ourselves informed of the circumstances in Haiti. We can contact U.S. elected officials and the United Nations to let them know that the world is watching. We can continue to support relief efforts financially or by volunteering, and for those who believe that prayer can change things – PRAY for the people of this little country who have such strong spirits and hearts.


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