My colleague, Kenny Rae, sent an email message from Haiti last week—a stark reminder that for many of the people of Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities, little has changed in the nine weeks since a massive quake leveled much of the Haitian capital.
“2 months later, great unmet needs continue to be identified every day,” said the brief e-mail, before summarizing in one, short-hand-like sentence, the sweep of challenges people there face: “3 babies have been born in this small camp of 40 families since the earthquake.”
The reality is this: newborns are living outside with their families on a hill too rocky to accommodate latrines and too steep for water trucks to climb. When Oxfam staffers reached the camp on Monday, they learned that the people there had received virtually no assistance since the quake struck.
I spoke with Kenny on Thursday as he was banging along in a car through the noisy streets of Port-au-Prince. Over the scratchy phone line, I could hear vendors shouting through the windows and the engine grinding as the vehicle negotiated streets riddled with pot holes and crowded with people.
Everyone is keenly aware of the approaching rainy season, Kenny said, and Oxfam is busy distributing plastic sheeting to families desperate for shelter. Many people are still living in tiny huts made from bed sheets salvaged from their ruined homes. To ensure that Oxfam’s supplies of plastic sheeting continue to arrive quickly, we’re flying in the material while others are playing a dangerous game of wait and see with freighting companies that are sending goods slowly by ship. It’s more costly, said Kenny—about $18 per two-piece family shelter kit—to rely on the air freight, but with the rain coming, there is no time to waste.
Along with shelter, people also have an ongoing need for a safe and decent place to go to the bathroom. Aid experts say that 18,000 latrines are needed and only a fraction of these have been dug so far. On Thursday, Kenny said the need remains huge. We’re retrofitting some of the latrines we’ve dug so they can withstand the rain when it comes. We’re banking the sides and putting covers on top to keep downpours from filling the holes, and we intentionally have been digging the pits about 10 feet deep to accommodate the rain that might get in.
But latrine construction is only partly about engineering. As important is working with the people on whose land the latrines have been dug. A weariness is setting in said Kenny. People want this nightmare to be over and the goodwill that landowners showed in the beginning has started to thin. On Thursday, Kenny was headed to a neighborhood called Ti Savanne to talk with the man who owned the land where Oxfam had built a bank of latrines. The man wanted them filled in and for people to go home.
But in a city where more than 97,000 buildings totally collapsed and nearly double that number were severely damaged, where can people go?
I’m thinking about those three babies in the camp in that Delmas neighborhood, born into the tumult of a year seared by what the Inter-American Development Bank says may be the most destructive natural disaster in modern times. How will that shape their lives? Will it be like a birth mark that forever reminds them—and their families—of upheaval and loss?
I asked Kenny about the babies, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“They seem to be thriving,” he said. “A local church is providing assistance to the mothers.”
I remembered, then, what a young woman told me about two weeks after her world came crashing down. She was sitting outside her tent in a once-empty lot now crowded with the makeshift shelters of families displaced by the quake.
“We know how to live together,” said Guirlene Firmin, whose tent teemed with 12 sleeping bodies every night. “We share everything we get.”
For the Delmas babies, perhaps that’s the birthmark—the spirit of sharing—that will never fade.