Aftermath of Haiti Earthquake The Will to Survive in a Disaster Zone

Food remains in short supply, security is spotty and medical supplies are in great demand. One week after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the city is still struggling to cope with the disaster.

Looters in Port-au-Prince: The situation in the Haitian capital is becoming increasingly desperate.
AFP

Looters in Port-au-Prince: The situation in the Haitian capital is becoming increasingly desperate.

By in Port-au-Prince, Haiti


"One hundred dollars," says the taxi driver, without even batting an eye. One hundred US dollars for a taxi ride within the city limits of Port-au-Prince.

Almost a week after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that transformed the Haitian capital into a sea of rubble, there remains little indication that the city is getting back on its feet. Medical care remains spotty, shortages of food and drinking water persist and frustration continues to rise. Gasoline, too, is in short supply, with enough left for just two or three more days, according to Germany's Federal Agency for Technical Relief, currently staying in the German Embassy.

Photo Gallery

36  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Fight for Life and Control

Nevertheless, the urge to make a buck -- by overcharging for water or demanding a small fortune for a taxi ride -- remains.

Not all, however, have succumbed to the temptation to use the tragedy for their personal advantage. Marie Lucette Stephan, a 36-year-old woman with long black hair tied back into a ponytail, quickly comes forward: "Come on, I'll take you wherever you want," she says.

'Not Much Left'

Like most earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince these days, Stephan is facing a daunting list of challenges. On Monday, she was at the German Embassy for the umpteenth time in an effort to leave Haiti and return to her husband in the German city of Mannheim. Stephan originally left Haiti in 1995 and became a German citizen several years ago, but she comes back regularly on business and maintains a home in Port-au-Prince. But now her German passport lies somewhere under the rubble of her collapsed house. "There is not much left of it," she says.

Stephan runs a wholesale company, exporting things like Nutella hazelnut spread, sunflower oil and toothbrushes to Haiti. She visits her homeland three or four times a year. She doesn't know what happened to her goods in the city's port as a result of the earthquake.

That, though, is a secondary concern. More than anything, she needs insulin. She herself can cope with her diabetes for the time being. But she is pregnant and her baby will be at risk if she does not find some insulin soon.

Staff in the German Embassy are at a loss about where to get the medication. They have put Stephan in touch with the Swiss Embassy, which is organizing departures from Haiti. There are buses that take people across the border into the Dominican Republic. From there, Stephan could continue by plane.

But the ride to the border alone currently takes at least eight hours. Many roads and bridges have been destroyed. Those roads which are still passable are often congested, despite the fuel shortages, as Haitians try to cross the border into the Dominican Republic or travel to parts of their country which were unaffected by the earthquake.

A Sea of Red

In Port-au-Prince too, the traffic is bad. Colorfully painted, hopelessly overcrowded buses stand behind pickup trucks piled high with things that people have found amid the rubble, like chairs or cupboards. Anything that is half-way intact gets taken. The scene resembles a big clearance sale -- only no one is paying.

At the Red Cross base camp, workers have hung up a map labelled "Earthquake affected areas." A red dot marks a collapsed building. There are many dots to the west and south of the ruined presidential palace; in some places it looks as if they have merged into a large sea of red. But the abstract representation can hardly capture the scale of the disaster.

Huge swaths of the city look like they have been bulldozed flat. Still, days after the earthquake, people continue searching for survivors buried under the rubble. Mostly though, it is hard to imagine that anyone once lived in the pulverized buildings, but for the shoes, flattened pots and ripped mattresses strewn about.

Aid has been arriving in Haiti for days. Transport planes from around the world land at Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port-au-Prince and disgorge boxes of food, water bottles and heavy equipment. Rescue teams disembark and march across the asphalt in their uniforms and heavy boots.

Photo Gallery

17  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Rescue Effort Takes Shape

But how far have the international rescue teams managed to get? More and more sheets can be seen fluttering on walls and street corners in Port-au-Prince, bearing the desperate plea: "We need food."

Bisewood Saint Eugene looks sad on Monday as he takes a short break and collapses into a chair. "It's as if the country has been swept away," says the 30-year-old Haitian, who is working with the American Red Cross. His family survived the quake, but he does not have to look very far to see the misery -- like bodies being carried through the city on makeshift stretchers. Some of the corpses land on the growing piles of trash.

'She's Dying'

The workers from the German Red Cross experienced just how precarious the situation in Haiti is on their second day in the country. On Monday, a car raced across the grounds of their base camp. Inside were an angry man and a woman covered in blood. "She's dying, she's dying," the man shouted.

The doctors were able to rescue the woman, who had had a miscarriage. The woman was unable to go to the hospital because those few remaining in the city are filled to overflowing. "People are no longer being allowed in," says Fredrik Barkenhammar of the German Red Cross. "They are camped outside the doors waiting for help."

On Tuesday, he and his team plan to set up a mobile clinic which will have two doctors, four nurses and a laboratory technician. It will provide basic health care in the form of pain killers, antibiotics, intravenous drips and dressings.

Barkenhammar has experience working in other earthquake-hit areas and was involved in relief work in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2004. But Haiti is a special challenge. The country had very few structures in place to cope with such a disaster, he says. It's very hard for aid agencies to carry out their work, he adds, because they had hardly had any contacts in the Haitian government. "I've never experienced anything like this," Barkenhammar says.

On the other hand, there are also encouraging bits of news. According to staff from the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW), Germany's disaster relief agency, efforts to supply drinking water are finding success. The THW by itself can produce 12,000 liters (3,200 US gallons) of water per hour.

'You Can Not Live Here'

Marie Lucette Stephan is going to come back to the German Embassy. She still needs to get more documents -- for herself, her daughter Chacha, who until now has been living with her Haitian father, and her niece Liline. She wants to take both the girls with her to Germany. "You can not live here," she says. They are currently spending the nights outside Port-au-Prince, sleeping on mattresses on the street. The city is too dangerous, she says. "There is a lot of crime here now."

The earthquake has robbed her of many things, she says, but Marie Lucette Stephan is not one to complain. It's true there is little to eat, she says, "but we have fresh water." And she is even managing to get by in the darkness without any electricity. "After all, we have the moon."

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