29 May - 5 June 2015 #760

Haiti on our minds

Ordinary Haitians who survived their quake have a word of advice for Nepalis
Stéphane Huët

Haiti is to the Caribbean, perhaps, what Nepal is to South Asia. One of the lowest per capita incomes, political instability, environmental concerns, and of course the earthquake. A Google search of Haiti+Nepal will mostly bring up one common word: ‘cholera’.

Yet, last week Haitian president Michel Martelly sent $1 million to Nepal for relief operations after the earthquake here. The reaction among Haitians on social media to this act of generosity to a people on the other side of the world was mixed. Some said it would have been more useful to reconstruct their own country.

Indeed, even five years after the 12 January 2010 earthquake, Haiti is still reeling from the shock. Nelson Deshommes, a journalist based in Port-au-Prince thinks reconstruction is a myth: “Displaced people are still in camps five years later, temporary shelters have become permanent slums.”

The Haiti disaster was many times worse. Although it was only 7 magnitude, the epicentre was right underneath the capital, Port-au-Prince, and 300,000 people were killed.  Wilney Taris, communication head at the Haitian senate says the country wasn’t prepared for such a disaster. “Authorities were caught off guard by the violence of the earthquake and took too long to react,” he says.

Taris and Deshommes remember hundreds of relief organisations reached their country in the hours following the earthquake. “None of them really bothered coordinating with the local authorities,” recalls Taris. 

Just like in Nepal, Haitians came together immediately to rescue people under the rubble. Deshommes noted there was a strong solidarity impulse at that time. “That was the only way to avoid the worst,” he adds.

In these hectic moments, journalist Billy Raymond felt like he was in a movie. “But I didn’t know whether I was a spectator or an actor,” he says. “There was a smell of anxiety in the air and we had to react quickly.”

Wendy Cue of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) worked in Haiti from 1993 to 1999. She was in Nepal on 12 January 2010. Following Haiti’s earthquake, and in a column in this newspaper Cue tried to warn Nepalis about what Haitians had been through and to invest more on preparedness. 

Cue, now based in Switzerland, reckons that a country facing sudden disaster can never be prepared enough. But comparing the scenario she predicted, she says the consequences of Nepal’s 25 April were much less catastrophic than expected.

“Over the past five years, the Nepali government-led Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium has done a lot to improve legislation including building codes and prepare for emergency response,” she said. 

Moreover, Cue says Nepal can learn from relief coordination (or lack thereof) in Haiti. “In Haiti errors were made in creating temporary settlements that were not connected to communities,” she says. “It’s now important that Nepal provides livelihood and settlement options that are chosen with those affected.”

Haitians also regret that the international community did not bother to plan the appropriate disbursement required for a long term commitment. On his blog TV presenter Widlore Mérancourt writes: “Generosity, caused by the earthquake of 12 January 2010 disintegrated like a sand castle.”

Five years later, some colleges are still teaching in temporary shelters. Housing colonies set up by the American Refugee Committee (ARC) in Camp Corail have been surrounded by anarchic settlements. “This is why Nepalis should come together and define themselves the future of their country,” Taris adds.

President Martelly said the donation to Nepal is a ‘sign of solidarity’. This shows the 12 January 2010 earthquake is still present in Haiti’s memory. But the population isn’t taking any lessons from it, according to psychology student Osman Jérôme.

When Jérôme came back to his country after the quake, he was surprised to see dangerous buildings resuming construction in Port-au-Prince and hawkers sheltering in insecure buildings. 

“Unlike Haitians, Nepalis should not forget so quickly the damage caused by the earthquake,” advises Jérôme. “A population that forgets its past is condemned to relive it.”

Read also:

Haiti’s warning for Nepal, Daniel Lak

Survivors help survivors, Kunda Dixit

Learning from disasters, Vinod Thomas

Learning to learn lessons, Anurag Acharya

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