Smashed Hopes Six Months On, Haiti Remains Covered in Rubble

A half a year after a devastating earthquake claimed at least 222,570 lives, the work of rebuilding Haiti is still in the early stages. Helpers have traveled to the country from around the world, but reconstruction has barely progressed. In many parts of the country, people have simply moved on with their lives amidst the rubble.

REUTERS

By in Port-au-Prince


Daniel Strode, a man who likes to describe himself as being a bit like a cockroach, is also the man who helped Haiti to regain its independence. To do so, he had to tear down a wall and part of a ceiling. Every step taken in this building was potentially life threatening. In the end, though, he found the giant stone plaque, hanging at a height of three meters.

There it was, word for word, engraved in marble, the declaration of independence of the Haitian people, dated Jan. 1, 1804, and not a letter had been damaged. He had the plate taken outside, placed it on top of cardboard boxes and tires on the bed of a truck and then turned it over to an envoy of the Haitian government.

Then he returned to work. Five days later, in the same spot, where the massive white Palais Législatif once stood, nothing remained but a dusty open space. In fact, it looked much the same as it does wherever Daniel Strode completes a job. "No one likes cockroaches, but without cockroaches we'd have garbage all over the place," says Strode.

Strode likes empty spaces. A tall, bearded, 45-year-old American, he works for the aid organization CHF International, and he likes clean, orderly space. Strode's nightmare is a number: 25 million cubic meters of debris. It's because of that number that he is here in Port-au-Prince, more than six months after a major earthquake struck the Haitian capital. The first, cautious estimate was 25 million, but Strode believes that there are at least 50 million cubic meters of debris. And all of it has to be removed.

For Strode it's debris, but for Georges Emanies, the wreckage is still his house. Emanies was inside a church, in the middle of a hymn, when the earthquake struck. It dragged down his wife and their children, who were at home at the time, together with the kitchen where she was cooking rice and beans, and it brought down the house next door, where his youngest daughter, four-year-old Taïna, was watching cartoons on television.

Now Emanies is standing in front of his hut, which he has cobbled together with tarps and corrugated metal on top of the ruins of his former house, looking up at the sky. The clouds are gray and heavy over the hills. It will rain at night, and the water will shoot down underneath the tarp and wake up the children. The wind will rip at the tarp, and Taïna will cry when she hears the loud flapping and snapping noises in the darkness, afraid that another earthquake is about to strike.

The Struggle to Survive

On the hill in the distance, where the clouds are, the quake triggered a landslide, and an avalanche of gravel cut a long, vertical brown line into the landscape. The line hits the road at a right angle. People say it looks like a giant cross, buried in the mountain.

There are still 14 bodies under the rubble in Emanies' neighborhood, 10 on this side of the small canal and four on the other side -- 14 of the 222,570 dead the earthquake claimed. Sometimes, says Daniel Strode, people try to stop his excavators, saying that they would rather remove the debris with the strength of their hands. It isn't because of the bodies. The initial mourning period is over, says Strode. Now people are just struggling to survive, and they are trying to salvage whatever belongings they can from the wreckage.

Sometimes the young men dance as they push their wheel barrels full of rocks. With one arm stretched to the sky, they move their bodies back and forth, swaying to the rhythm of a song a Haitian DJ composed. It has only one line of lyrics. "Nathalie? Fabienne?" the singer calls out, and then, in the chorus sings: "Under the rubble." All of Port-au-Prince is now singing the same hit song.

The Competition to Tell Haiti's Saddest Story

It's a time in Haiti when an Icelander travels to the island and sets a prosthetic leg on a hotel bar. It's his own invention, a revolution, comfortable to wear. There are reportedly more than 4,000 amputees in the country. The Icelander says that he waited before bringing his invention to Haiti, to give the people time to process the trauma. But now, he says, the time has come for action. The talks are going well, he says, unwilling to provide any additional information.

It's a time in Haiti when older women with the organization Homeopaths Without Borders ask themselves how much they should tip in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It's a time when one isn't sure whether to believe the girl in the first row of tents in front of the presidential palace, who claims she is an orphan and was raped, and who has just given another interview.

The truth is that these cases do exist in the camps, where people have been living for six months, and where everything turns pitch-black at night. And the truth is that there is a competition underway over who can tell Haiti's saddest story. People have learned that the only way to get help is to be in dire straits. And so a woman says that her husband is dead, even though he's standing next to her, as if it weren't enough that her parents had already died in the quake. The world feels obligated not to forget this country, but Haiti has little to offer except the news that everything is still as miserable as it was before.

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