A 'Lost Decade': Haiti Still Struggles To Recover 10 Years After Massive Earthquake

Jan 12, 2020
Originally published on January 12, 2020 10:01 am

On the wind-whipped hills north of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Berthenid Dasny holds the keys to the gated memorial erected for Haiti's earthquake victims. Thousands of bodies are buried here in a mass grave dug after a magnitude 7 earthquake shook the country on Jan. 12, 2010.

"They've forgotten about this place; it should look better than this," Dasny says as she walks past the overgrown grass, rusted metal statues and brittle brush. For the past year, she has been the memorial's groundskeeper, though she has never been paid.

"You must remember the humans buried here. They were just like us and should always be honored, not forgotten," she says. Dasny believes some of her own relatives who were never found after the quake are buried in the grave.

Dasny says of the memorial: "You must remember the humans buried here. They were just like us and should always be honored, not forgotten."
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

The earthquake's main shock lasted almost 30 seconds. A series of aftershocks soon followed. An estimated 220,000 died, though Haiti's official estimates are higher. Some 1.5 million people were displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 300,000 were injured, and large parts of the country were buried under tons of twisted metal and concrete.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Donors from around the world swiftly pledged billions of dollars in aid and made promises to rebuild. But a decade on, Haitians who survived say they feel forgotten, as much of the goodwill and billions have been lost to waste, greed and corruption.

Elizabonne Casseus, 50, is trying to keep her family afloat. She lives with 17 relatives in a small shelter in Canaan, a slum north of Port-au-Prince inhabited by displaced earthquake survivors. Today, the sprawling array of concrete homes and wooden shacks is home to more than a quarter of a million people. There is no running water; there are no sewers and few roads.

Elizabonne Casseus built this shelter (left) using surplus USAID tarps she purchased. She prepares a pot of beans for the more than a dozen people who stay in this shelter.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

Aid, Casseus says, "was good for the people that got it, but not for me."

Her flimsy one-room shack is covered with a gray tarp, stamped with logos of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She bought the cover before coming to these windy hills after spending five years in a squalid tent camp near downtown Port-au-Prince. She had hoped the foreign aid would help her repair her home, destroyed in the quake.

Haiti has long been the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, and the earthquake only made things worse. In the first year after the quake, the economy contracted by more than 5 %.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Moved by the grisly images of the death and destruction, nations around the world pledged almost $10 billion to Haiti. In addition, $3 billion more was donated to worldwide charities that sent thousands of volunteers to the island. Promises were made for new roads, schools, government buildings and permanent, earthquake-proof housing. Haiti's long-troubled economy was going to be revitalized.

While millions poured into Haiti in the first two years after the quake, giving the economy a boost, signs were emerging that reconstruction wouldn't live up to those promises.

"There were so many opportunities after the earthquake that could have reduced so much poverty," says Kesner Pharel, a Haitian economist. He calls the last 10 years a "lost decade."

By 2012, millions of cubic feet of rubble still filled the streets. More than 500,000 people still lived in squalid tent camps, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Canaan is a slum north of Port-au-Prince inhabited by displaced earthquake survivors. The sprawling array of concrete homes and wooden shacks is home to more than a quarter of a million people.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

High-profile groups created to help coordinate the flow of aid money stopped operating. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, set up to streamline and provide transparency for major aid projects and co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton, had already disbanded by the fall of 2011, and less than half of the $4.6 billion pledged to projects was spent.

Victims of the 2010 earthquake moved in when the Haitian government opened Canaan (left) for settlement. Lindar Celhomme (right) looks through a hole in his plywood house in the Corail-Cesselesse settlement, one of the first places outside of Port-au-Prince where displaced earthquake survivors pitched their tents.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

A 2013 Government Accountability Office investigation found that USAID had underestimated the cost of infrastructure and housing projects, forcing it to substantially reduce the number of homes it originally planned to help build. The GAO also found that most USAID contracts went to non-Haitian companies, leaving local businesses out of any reconstruction boon.

And an NPR investigation five years after the quake found that the American Red Cross, which took in half a billion dollars from U.S. donors, had only built six permanent homes, not the 132,000 it had claimed. The Red Cross disputed NPR's reports and objected to findings of opaque bookkeeping and exorbitant overhead costs.

Economist Pharel says that on top of the botched reconstruction effort, Haiti's constant political turmoil, weak institutions and poor governance squandered international funds and goodwill. The United Nations has struggled in recent years to get donors to fulfill their aid commitments. Last year, it only met 30% of its funding goals to Haiti, according to the U.N.

Empty jugs for water sit in a corner of Berthenid Dasny's home. Outside her door sits a large pile of stone and sand that she has been gradually purchasing in hopes of someday building a new home.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

In recent months, though, citizens have been demanding more accountability from their leaders, not only for the earthquake aid but also for billions of dollars provided to Haiti from an aid program sponsored by Venezuela, known as PetroCaribe. Opponents of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse accuse him of embezzling some of the PetroCaribe funds, and they've taken to the streets demanding he resign. Moïse denies all allegations.

This fall, demonstrations turned violent, leaving 50 people dead and more than 100 injured. Schools and businesses were shut down for weeks. Critical food aid, especially outside the capital, couldn't reach much of the population as demonstrators blocked highways and roads. About a million Haitians suffer severe hunger. Human rights advocates say gangs have grown in the midst of the political turmoil.

Medical professionals and other protesters demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince in October. Moïse has been accused of embezzling aid money.
Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP via Getty Images

But many Haitians are no longer waiting for government or aid groups to build them more permanent homes. Casseus, who relocated to the sprawling slum outside Port-au-Prince, buys sand and stone whenever she has a little extra money so that one day, she can build a more permanent structure on the land she bought.

She admits it is slow going for her and her husband, a car mechanic. "Sometimes he goes out all day long and comes back with no money," she says.

Dasny, the earthquake memorial's groundskeeper, also hopes for a better place to live. For now, she has cobbled together a two-room house on the dusty hillside where she lives by the mass grave. It is made of wooden slats and corrugated tin that rattles and roars with every gust of wind.

Remy Magene Dasny, 22, sits with her mother Berthenid Dasny. Remy had to stop attending school, where she is working on an accounting degree, because of safety concerns due to the unrest in Port-au-Prince.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

Like Casseus, she keeps a large pile of stone and sand outside her door. When she has work or sells one of her goats, she uses the money to buy stones. She breaks the rocks and adds to the piles, getting ever closer to her goal of building a new home.

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The two largest earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico were estimated to be a magnitude 6.4 and 5.9. Ten years ago today in Haiti, it was a magnitude 7. That earthquake a decade ago killed more than 100,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more were injured. And much of that capital was ruined. The shaking lasted less than a minute. And the reconstruction has dragged on for years. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Nearly 10 years ago, when Louis Saint Claudelle (ph) and his family arrived here 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince, it felt like he landed on the moon. This region known as Corail-Cesselesse was rocky and desolate.

LOUIS SAINT CLAUDELLE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Things were not good for us back then, but this was the best solution at the time for us," says Saint Claudelle. His family had been living in a squalid tent camp until they were bussed out here.

SAINT CLAUDELLE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Who would have ever thought we'd be here so long?" he chuckles. Saint Claudelle has a wide smile and easy manner. I met him 10 years ago. He told me back then he was worried he wouldn't be able to support his family so far from the capital, so far from everything.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: (Singing in non-English language).

KAHN: Today, Corail has churches, stores and schools. Together with the neighboring Canaan slum, it is home to a quarter of a million earthquake refugees. There are no sewers, no running water and few paved roads. The latrines built a decade ago for a few thousand people haven't been emptied in years. Saint Claudelle's family still lives in the one-room shelter built by aid groups to last no more than five years.

MARIE: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Look at the shelter. If you were to hit it with something, it would just break," says Saint Claudelle's wife, Marie. Reconstruction throughout Haiti didn't materialize the way many had hoped. Governments around the world donated $10 billion for recovery and reconstruction. Private charities donated $3 billion more.


KAHN: Haiti's current president, Jovenel Moise, says, "I don't see the results of those billions." Moise spoke to NPR in his temporary office on the grounds of the still-not-rebuilt National Palace.

MOISE: (Through interpreter) Where are the villages to house 30,000 families? Where are the grand roads around the Port-au-Prince to decongest the city? We have no schools. Where all the professional schools to train us?

KAHN: Moise lays blame on many - past governments, the country's tiny yet powerful elite and an interim recovery commission co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton that was supposed to oversee major development projects. It was disbanded in 2011 before much of the billions pledged was spent.

Critics say Moise, who has never held political office before, has done little to help since coming to power in 2017. He's accused of embezzling funds from a Venezuela-backed aid program. He denies any wrongdoing. But his opponents are demanding his resignation and have paralyzed the country in recent months with demonstrations.

MOISE: (Through interpreter) Dialogue will be the solution. And I choose for that to be among Haitians.

KAHN: But the president hasn't been in dialogue with the opposition in quite some time. The Parliament hasn't approved a prime minister or a budget for the last three years. And a state-of-the-art general hospital, funded by foreigners, sits unfinished.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing in non-English language).

KAHN: Every morning, 150 employees of this call center in downtown Port-au-Prince try to lift their spirits with prayer as they start their workday. Their office is in one of the most dangerous areas of the capital. But their boss, 42-year-old Duquense Fednard (ph), gives them a daily pep talk.


KAHN: It's easy to find problems. The hard part is to find the solutions, he tells his workers. Fednard, like many of Haiti's diaspora, rushed home to help after the quake. He says it hasn't been easy doing business here. But his company is profitable and growing thanks to his motivated workforce.

DUQUENSE FEDNARD: We are really fighters - resilient - who really wants to fight the system to change the situation one way or another.

KAHN: Fednard is a frenetic and friendly presence. He preaches his gospel ethical entrepreneurship to anyone who will listen and says Haiti's road to recovery is through well-paid jobs like these, not through handouts. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Port-au-Prince. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.