LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) — The tin-roofed, cinder-block house rented by Erline Castel and Dieunord Ernest was among more than 130,000 homes damaged or destroyed by a powerful earthquake that struck southern Haiti last year and killed more than 2,200 people.
In the days after the 7.2-magnitude earthquake, they gathered sheets, tarpaulins and wood and built a shelter for themselves and their three children. More than a year after the earthquake of August 14, 2021, they are still living in the same makeshift tent as hundreds of others, still wondering if anyone will help them.
If recent history is any guide, few people will.
The Associated Press visited several encampments surrounding the southern coastal city of Les Cayes, which was one of the hardest-hit areas, and time and time again people complained that no government official had visited them despite repeated promises to who would come to help.
While the family waited for help, Ernest died of prostate cancer last year. So today, Castel is alone, fighting for the survival of her family like many who are fighting to restart her lives after the earthquake.
On Thursday morning, she tried to suckle her 9-month-old daughter. But after a year of surviving on scraps in a makeshift camp, Castel had no milk. The little girl, Wood Branan Ernest, fell asleep during her failed attempt.
“I have nothing to provide for them,” Castel said.
What is worse, others are victimizing the victims of the earthquake.
In a camp, friends of the property owner are trying to reclaim the land where the refugees have settled. The thugs smashed shacks, threw stones at families and tried to set the camp on fire twice in recent months.
The camp, like several others, also quickly floods when it rains, forcing hundreds of people to flee to higher ground as they watch their belongings get wet.
“I don’t know how long I can go on like this,” said Renel Cene, a 65-year-old who lost four children in the earthquake and once worked in nearby fields of vetiver, a plant whose roots produce an oil used in fine perfumes.
Families walk to get water from the well, sometimes letting the sediment settle before drinking it. Many do not have a job. They depend on neighbors for their only meal of the day.
Those living in the camps say they have heard on the radio that local government officials have met with international leaders to discuss the post-earthquake situation, but wonder if they will ever get help.
“Until now, everything has been promises,” said farmer Nicolas Wilbert Ernest, 55. “I don’t know how long I have to wait.”
On the anniversary of the earthquake, a group of government officials held a press conference outlining the progress of the administration of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who began running the country shortly after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021.
The government claims to have planted 400 tons of beans, cleaned 10,000 meters of canals, distributed 22,000 bags of fertilizer and donated more than 300,000 baskets full of basic products. It has provided $100 each to vulnerable people in tens of thousands of homes across the South. The state also opened a temporary bridge over the Rio Grande-Anse in early August.
But UNICEF warned last week that more than 250,000 children still do not have access to adequate schools and that most of the 1,250 schools destroyed or damaged have not been rebuilt. He noted that lack of funds and an increase in violence have delayed reconstruction.
Increasingly powerful gangs have taken control of the main highway that runs from the capital of Port-au-Prince to Haiti’s southern region, disrupting efforts to provide food, water and other basic goods to those in need.
Many organizations have been forced to pay bribes to prevent staff from being kidnapped while driving south.
Cindy Cox-Roman, executive director of HelpAGE USA, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, said there is “a great feeling on the part of people that they are in this alone.”
Cassendy Charles, emergency program manager for Mercy Corps, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, estimates it could take five years for the region to fully recover from the earthquake. The organization has been forced to use ships and planes to transport supplies south, but even that is complicated because the port is located next to the poor neighborhood of Cite Soleil, where more than 200 people are believed to have been killed recently in clashes between rival gangs. territory.
“The situation is volatile,” he said.
Meanwhile, double-digit inflation has deepened poverty. Marie Dadie Durvergus, a kindergarten teacher who lives with her two children in a camp, said a bag of rice that cost 750 gourdes ($6) last year now costs 4,000 gourdes ($31).
Berline Laguerre, a former street vendor who once sold used clothes, said the money she had saved to buy more clothes went to feed her children. She had nothing left over to send them to school or buy them uniforms or books.
“And the kids ask me, ‘Mom, when am I going back to school?’ My friends are like, ‘What about me?’” she said.
On a recent morning, Laguerre lined up with others outside tent #8, where Bauzile Yvenue brewed sweet coffee for neighbors in need, a system that has become key to survival.
“I can’t do this every morning, but on the days I do, it makes me feel good to be able to share coffee with my neighbors,” said the 48-year-old mother of two.
But a moment later, she said she worries her 14-year-old daughter could be raped at the camp. Rape was commonplace in similar camps that sprang up after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 Haitians.
Jocelin Juste became the informal manager of Camp Devirel after the most recent major earthquake. He and other self-proclaimed leaders wrote dozens of letters by hand and visited local nonprofit organizations to try to get the attention of government officials.
“We are doing everything we can to survive,” he said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION