As aid worker Casey Calamusa surveyed the ruins just weeks after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake last January, he couldn't help but feel he was walking through the set of an "end-of-the-world, surreal movie."
Haiti’s real-life disaster ground houses into dust, ripped up roads and leveled office buildings, killing more than 200,000 people by some estimates.
“There’s no way to rebuild that in a matter of months. It takes years to remove the rubble. The challenges of lack of infrastructure, and lack of governance, make it even more complicated,” said Calamusa, a communications officer with World Vision, a global humanitarian organization based in Federal Way. He visited Haiti last month for the second time in a year.
“It’s very natural to want to see these people who have suffered so much restored to what they were before very quickly. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
The Kent man’s perspective echoes that of two other Puget Sound residents who have visited Haiti the past year to assist in international recovery efforts.
Aid representatives can cite the number of patients their organization has served, the number of shelters their organization has built, and an array of other statistics reflecting their work since the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake and its aftershocks.
Yet, says the Rev. John Penton, executive director of the Church of God in Christ Charities, evidence of overall progress is tough to find amid the devastation.
Mountains of debris remain throughout the nation’s capital of Port-au-Prince. An estimated 1 million people displaced by the quake continue to live in tents, makeshift bivouacs and other temporary housing. Electricity, if available, is sporadic.
“It’s frustrating to (the Haitian) people because they don’t see visible signs of rebuilding their homes and the infrastructure, and they don’t know what the hang-up is,” said Penton, who’s also pastor of Roosevelt Heights Church of God in Christ in Tacoma. “The citizens think, ‘What’s the problem? You’re all over here.’ There’s a great disgust and disappointment in the established government, of not seeing a quick response and not enough done to impact their life.”
POCKETS OF PROGRESS
Certainly, pockets of Haiti see glimpses of progress.
Jack Marlowe and four employees from his Olympia-based pest control firm volunteered for a week in Haiti in September to battle bugs and rats plaguing three hospitals. They were among 20 professional exterminators with the National Pest Management Association on the trip, tackling dangerous pest problems in Haitian hospitals.
“There’s incredible rubble and bad sanitation, which is a prescription for really bad rat infestations,” said Marlowe, president of Eden Advanced Pest Technologies in Olympia.
At one hospital storage area Marlowe visited, rats had chewed through bags of grain, and covered the food with feces. Doctors told stories of rats scurrying into operating rooms as they performed surgery on patients.
Marlowe, 52, and fellow volunteers set traps and poison bait on hospital grounds, and shared their techniques with a Haitian extermination firm struggling to control the rodents.
But the pest experts spent most of their time creating a feature that’s basic in American buildings: window screens. Since the hospitals lack window screens, doctors and patients have been suffering from mosquito bites, risking the possibility of malaria and dengue fever.
The volunteers fashioned screens out of duct tape and netting they brought from the states and PVC obtained in Haiti, then installed the screens in hospital windows, Marlowe said.
They arranged for screens from the United States to be shipped to a children’s hospital that had uniform window sizes.
Luckily, they brought their own tools. “The association shipped in a bunch of stuff that never made it out of customs; that seems to be a chronic problem. ... For whatever reason, some of the things we needed never made it out of Haiti customs.”
Hospital staff were elated to have the screens.
“It touches your heart. When your expertise is needed, and it’s an important part of health and welfare for people, that makes you feel better than giving money,” said Marlowe, who covered the transportation, lodging and other costs for him and his employees to go to Haiti.
Much work remains. Marlowe said a survey team from the pest management association identified 30 Haitian hospitals that needed pest control assistance; two association-sponsored work trips have helped just six of them.
During drives through Port-au-Prince, Marlowe was struck by the level of destruction still evident nine months after the earthquake. “You’d have a six-story building that would pancake; you could see the six concrete floors, one on top of the other. That’s everywhere,” he said. “You’re constantly having to negotiate around piles of rubble in the streets.”
Yet he was impressed by the industriousness of Haitians, who make their way through the ruins, selling goods and food and doing what business they can. “It made you think, in their own strange way, things are getting back to normal. ... The real recovery is going to take so long. If you’re not used to this by now, you’ve got problems.”
THE LONG VIEW
Calamusa, with Federal Way-based World Vision, says he saw definite improvements in Haiti last month compared with his time there in February.
There is less rubble and less chaos in the streets. Most people are getting enough to eat. More people are adjusting to circumstances.
But, he stressed, it doesn’t mean things are good.
“They’ve been camping outside for 11 months now in pretty deplorable conditions,” said Calamusa, 25. “It’s very cramped. There’s not a lot of opportunities for jobs yet. There’s no privacy. You’re living with hundreds of other people all crammed together. It gets very hot. There’s very little protection from the rain.”
And now the poverty-stricken nation is dealing with cholera. Haitian health ministry data says more than 3,300 people have died of cholera since the outbreak erupted in mid-October.
World Vision staff have set up cholera-treatment units in camps for earthquake survivors, and are training people how to recognize symptoms.
“It’s a pretty deadly strain,” he said. “Cholera, if identified, is easily treated with oral rehydration fluid. If people don’t recognize what they have, it can be deadly very quickly.”
World Vision manages 11 camps for earthquake survivors and has built 700 “transitional shelters,” essentially one-room houses on a concrete slab, with two sets of doors.
“They’re a big step up from the camps. They’re clean, stable and have extra exits so people have peace of mind that if something happens, they have an extra way to escape.”
World Vision, which has worked in Haiti for 30 years, expects its earthquake relief work to last at least three to five more years. It employs 911 workers in Haiti in the relief effort; close to 800 of the employees are Haitians.
“It’s a very long-term process recovering from a disaster of this scale,” Calamusa said. “We’re committed to the long term but we ask people to commit themselves, that donors remember we’re still working, and the help is still needed.”
SLOW AND FRUSTRATING
Sure, the destruction was massive in Haiti, the Rev. John Penton concedes. But with so many governments and aid organizations working to help Haiti, Penton believes there should be far more progress in rebuilding the country.
“Overall, it’s not getting better,” he said.
As executive director of the international Church of God in Christ Charities, Penton talks on the phone at least weekly with staff handling the Haiti relief efforts. He solicits and coordinates donations of medicine, services and transportation, and visited Haiti in March and late July.
In the second visit, the 62-year-old Lakewood man said the smell of decaying bodies that pervaded Port-au-Prince in March was gone. He saw more Haitians with jobs to clean up the city. Earthquake survivors appeared to have enough food, and he could see people were clean and neatly dressed, even if they lived in tents.
But the only significant improvement to the infrastructure he noticed was at the airport, which could accommodate more air traffic. Haitian bureaucracy continued to hamper relief efforts, requiring steep fees and excessive paperwork to release humanitarian supplies that were shipped to the nation. Supplies linger for weeks or months, waiting to be delivered.
“The heartbreak is that it takes so long to get those resources to the people in need,” he said.
Overseas doctors who volunteer for the Church of God in Christ Charities have found it’s more efficient to pack few clothes and lots of medical supplies in luggage to get the supplies past Haitian customs, he said.
They serve patients in the charity’s makeshift clinic in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb about eight miles northeast of Port-au-Prince.
The clinic was created partly through a fortuitous coincidence. The denomination was finishing construction of its national headquarters for the 150 Church of God in Christ churches in Haiti when the quake struck. Unlike the church’s two orphanages that were destroyed in Port-au-Prince, the headquarters sustained only minor damage. Staff transformed the building into a medical clinic that the charity continues to operate there, Penton said. It’s staffed with a Haitian doctor, a half-dozen Haitian nurses, and a rotation of American physicians who volunteer for short stints.
When it opened, the clinic served more than 500 people a day, treating ailments ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to earthquake-related injuries. To date, the clinic has served more than 50,000 patients.
Now the charity is preparing to build a permanent clinic and an orphanage next to the headquarters.
“The problem with Port-au-Prince is you can’t do any major construction because the whole infrastructure is compromised. I’m talking about electricity and running water,” Penton said, noting that the new facilities will have their own power generators and wells.
Despite the considerable challenges facing their country, Haiti’s people serve as a source of inspiration to Penton. He was amazed at Haitians selling furniture they crafted from scraps and their ability to keep cars considered ancient by U.S. standards running. They refused to wallow in despair.
“It demonstrates the human spirit is much more resilient than the circumstances humans experience,” Penton said. “The people we were talking to did not magnify their situation. They would tell you, ‘We lost, but on the other hand, we’re going to survive.’ They always had that positive outlook.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 firstname.lastname@example.org