A year later, Haiti still in ruin

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 10:51 p.m.

GRESSIER, Haiti -- Jean Audancian was trapped in the rubble of his collapsed home next to his dead 4-year-old son for more than a day before he was rescued.

A year after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that destroyed his home and left him with nagging injuries, Audancian finds himself caring for much more than what's left of his family.

He decided upon his recovery that he would care for the orphans of those killed in the quake and others without parents.

The group now numbers three dozen children, who live in tents and play on a dirty lot surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire.

They had run out of food last week before a group from the nearby FISH Ministries, which feeds children at several Gressier-area schools, arrived with boxes of rice and beans.

"It's like this all over Haiti," said Edsel Redden, a University of Florida staff member who is director and founder of the group.

Sites like Audancian's makeshift orphanage show the scale of immense poverty in Haiti — the Western Hemisphere's poorest country — while raising questions about the ability to change the situation without functioning governmental services.

After the quake, the problem has been compounded by a cholera outbreak and a contested election that again might lead to political unrest.

"You can't blame the donor states for not putting money in here until they see some kind of stability," Redden said.

Despite billions in pledged relief, lasting progress has been elusive in Haiti in the year after the quake.

Only 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, and nearly 1 million people still live in tents or under tarps, according the international aid agency Oxfam.

A visitor to the country sees people living in tents immediately outside the Port-au-Prince international airport, across from the destroyed National Palace and next to homes that have been knocked down.

Rubble sits in the streets in front of many ruined structures, making the country's already shoddy roads even more difficult to traverse.

Signs of international relief are everywhere, from the bags of rice bearing the "US AID" logo to the distinctive blue walls on the temporary homes provided by Franklin Graham's Samaritan Purse ministry.

United Nations bases show the wide range of international involvement, with the Gressier area being home to peacekeepers from South Korea and Sri Lanka.

But talk with some Haitian residents and you'll hear resentment about the U.N. presence and questions about the effectiveness of non-governmental organizations.

Herald Guillaume works in the Haitian prime minister's records office but acknowledges the government's role in the lack of progress since the quake.

While he also works on a UF malaria tracking project done in coordination with Redden's group and credits it and some other non-governmental organizations for positive work, Guillaume takes a dim view of other groups.

He said many groups keep money that is meant for the Haitian people.

"There's enough to change the situation," he said. "The money goes back to where it comes from."

He cites the work of the Disaster Accountability Project, which surveyed 196 relief organizations working in Haiti but received responses from only about 20 percent.

The groups that responded reported getting $1.4 billion in donations and spending about 52 percent on relief in the year after the quake, according to the project's recent report.

Guillaume was in a Port-au-Prince market at the time of the quake, surviving its collapse with minor injuries. After living outside with his pregnant wife and two boys for more than a week, he sent them to live in Jacksonville, where they remain today.

"It's my country, and I have a lot of work to do," he said. "At the same time, my family — I want the best for them."

Other Haitians lack such options. Robertson Fils-aime was working at a youth center in Logne, a city west of Gressier and near the earthquake's epicenter, at the time of the temblor.

Out of 76 people there at the time, he said he was one of only three to survive.

"If it wasn't for God, I don't think I would have made it through," he said, with Guillaume providing translation.

His home in Gressier, which he said he worked 20 years to build, also was destroyed. Today, his family lives in tents next to the shell of the structure.

He expressed frustration with the Haitian government about a lack of progress and a hope that reporting on the suffering of people there will lead to more international help.

Redden said he believes that progress will remain slow without a unified approach to health, nutrition and economic development.

His organization raises chickens, fish and goats to provide sources of animal protein for children, and now is moving into projects to help people raise chickens on their own. He's separately working with UF's College of Public Health and Health Professions on an infectious disease laboratory and other projects, while the university's Emerging Pathogens Institute studies cholera, malaria and other diseases in the region.

As he left Audancian's makeshift orphanage, Redden said that such a situation wouldn't exist in a country with functioning social services.

But he still made plans to start bringing chickens to the site, suggesting that improving a bad situation was better than doing nothing at all.

"As long as they're here, we're going to help feed them," he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com.

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