On a stretch of Interstate 95 in southern Florida, a recent billboard beckoned drivers with a tropical beach scene and an unexpected slogan: “Haiti, Live the Experience.”
The billboard—posted by Haiti’s beleaguered tourism ministry—did depict one of the country’s Caribbean shorelines, but it didn’t represent the experience most Haitians are living.
Nearly three years after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haitians are preparing for the Jan. 12 anniversary. Churchgoers in dark suits and white dresses likely will fill prayer services. They will remember the catastrophe that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2.1 million from their homes.
This anniversary notes some progress: Construction workers finally dismantled the crumpled presidential palace earlier this year. Workers have moved mountains of rubble that filled city lots for nearly two years. And the sprawling tent cities that dominated public plazas are mostly gone, though it’s unclear if residents found permanent housing or moved to other tent dwellings.
Still, mammoth challenges remain. Though the number of Haitians living in registered camps for those displaced by the quake has fallen from its peak of 1.3 million, the numbers are still high: At least 370,000 still live in nearly 600 camps—many in squalid conditions.
Government grants to some tent-dwellers have subsidized rental fees in apartments, but the grants only last a year. New construction has picked up, but remains a small fraction of housing around Port-au-Prince. And though some homeowners repaired their dwellings, others moved back into dangerously damaged structures: The United States Agency for International Development estimates residents now occupy at least 65 percent of condemned properties in the city.
The problems don’t stem from a lack of aid. The charity watchdog GuideStar reports Haiti hosts more nongovernmental organizations per capita than any other country in the world. The Brookings Institution reports the amount of aid delivered in Haiti in 2010 outstripped the country’s total internal revenue by four times.
Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution notes many camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) include Haitians who weren’t displaced by the earthquake: They were so poor, they moved into camps to access resources like clean water. Though camps are often miserable, Ferris says one aid worker told her: “Everyone wants to be an IDP.”
Aid workers emphasize that quake damage exacerbated deep-rooted problems plaguing Haiti long before the earthquake. A decades-long history of severe poverty and government corruption hampers efforts at widespread progress, and aid efforts often remain piecemeal and disconnected.
Meanwhile, new crises loom: A cholera epidemic has killed more than 7,000 Haitians in the last two years, and threatens more deaths during the rainy season.
Before Hurricane Sandy pummeled the northeastern United States in October, it lashed Haiti, killing at least 54 and washing out 70 percent of crops in the southern region. That compounds a growing food crisis, and the United Nations reports as many as 2 million Haitians are in danger of malnutrition.
Despite the grueling difficulties, aid groups—including many Christian organizations—continue to offer much-needed physical and spiritual relief to Haitians across the country.
Benjamin Hopp, a missionary to Haiti with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was in Haiti when the quake struck in 2010. He’s seen notable progress over the last year, but says it’s “sadly only bringing things back to the old very poor standards.”
He also notes that while Haitians still struggle with post-quake distress, they constantly confront other trials. “Trauma is part of everyday life in Haiti, so in one sense people move on because there are new challenges every month,” he says. “Encouraging them through preaching the gospel and praying for them is what we can bring.”