'We Have Nothing.' Earthquake Aid Arriving — Slowly — In Haiti's Desperate Communities
The remoteness of Haiti's southwest peninsula has made humanitarian aid delivery difficult, after the Aug. 14 earthquake. Is a new approach helping?
It’s been more than two weeks since a powerful magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck southwest Haiti and killed more than 2,200 people. But survivors say humanitarian aid is getting to them painfully slowly.
One main reason is the remoteness of the region where the earthquake hit, as well as the threadbare infrastructure and difficult terrain of Haiti’s southwest Tiburon peninsula.
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That’s the bad news. The good news is that a new, more effective aid delivery paradigm may be emerging after this latest Haiti earthquake. WLRN's Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett, who's been talking to Haitians there and here in South Florida about the situation.
Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity.
DIMATTEI: Tim, what are we hearing most from Haitians on the ground who say the earthquake has more or less cut them off from the world?
PADGETT: Many tell us the most needed aid — tents, food, water, medical supplies — are only now starting to reach them. The Aug. 14 earthquake hit the remote southwest Tiburon peninsula. It’s more mountainous, roads are bad and many are controlled by criminal gangs — although they’ve supposedly agreed to a truce to allow relief supplies to safely pass.
Communities are just harder to reach, period. Like Camp-Perrin. We spoke to a farmer-agronomist there named Rebert Cemelus, who lost his farm as well as several friends and relatives — including an aunt he was close to who was killed when her house collapsed while she was cooking breakfast for everyone the morning the earthquake hit.
Cemelus helped commandeer a vacant road construction depot and organized a camp for more than 500 survivors — 70 families. On Friday he said they were all still sleeping outside because no tents had arrived yet; and they’d jury-rigged a solar-powered aquifer pump from a nearby plant nursery because no donated water had arrived yet.
“These people have absolutely nothing now,” Cemelus told us. “They’ve lost family members, their houses are crushed, they have nothing to eat.”
He added, “We don't have the resources to manage this much longer.”
What about in the coastal cities?
Well, we also spoke with Rosebeyenne Larrieux, a nurse who lives in the coastal city of Les Cayes. She and her family all but lost their home in the earthquake; it's too dangerous to stay in now. Les Cayes is not as cut off as Camp-Perrin, but Larrieux told us even there they hadn’t seen tents or any other relief aid yet in her neighborhood.
“We’re sleeping under a tree each night," she said. "When it rains everyone takes cover in a neighbor’s garage. But it’s very scary because there are still so many aftershocks and it feels like it could collapse on us.”
These people have lost family members, their houses are crushed, they're sleeping outside at night, they have nothing to eat. We can't manage this much longer.Rebert Cemelus
And what are we hearing from Haitians here in South Florida as they try to make contact with family there and try to send help?
Haitians here tell me they’re very concerned after talking to family members there — especially the farther west you go, especially the city of Jeremie on the tip of the Tiburon peninsula. Many of the mountain roads into Jeremie are shut off and the main bridge into the city is collapsed.
Myrtho Valcin, a Haitian from Jeremie who lives in Miramar and runs a nonprofit to help Haitians called the Macaya Foundation, told me they’re struggling to figure out right now how to get aid, especially badly needed medical supplies, into Jeremie.
“The biggest problem is transportation," Valcin said. "To go to Jeremie is very dangerous right now. We have a hospital there, but it suffered a lot of damage; and I'm told people who have to go to a hospital, the only way really to transport them is by plane, and it’s very expensive.”
Is the aid delivery situation at least starting to improve?
In recent days, yes. U.S. military helicopters and Osprey aircraft, largely directed from here at Southcomas part of the Joint Haiti Task Force, have ferried more than half a million pounds of relief supplies into the Tiburon peninsula. They're also transporting injured Haitians to hospitals in Port-au-Prince. A lot more is needed; so late last week the Biden administration said it’s going to provide an additional $32 million in humanitarian assistance to Haiti.
You mentioned one of the things that might help the aid process this time is that much of it is being done differently than it was after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
Right. International aid NGOs got a lot of criticism after the 2010 earthquake for just sheer waste. Layers and layers of costly overhead — SUV rentals, hotel stays — and more important, for keeping Haitians themselves shut out of the relief and recovery process.
That seems to be changing this time. The Haitian government for one thing, is exerting more of the aid control it didn’t in 2010.
Last week, from the Miami River, GEM began sending more than $5 million of relief aid to the port of Miragoâne on the Tiburon peninsula. It will directly to the local Roman Catholic archdiocese and other Haitian groups there to distribute, because they know the communities there better and how best to get to them. It’ll be interesting to see if that approach works better.
What do the Haitian government and the international community need to do to keep this region of Haiti from being so isolated in any future disasters?
For starters, the government in Port-au-Prince and international partners need to end the general neglect of that region — especially since the fault line that produced the past two earthquakes lies right under that region.
They need to get serious about earthquake-proofing as well as hurricane-proofing that peninsula now. As Cemelus in Camp Perrin told us, you can at least prepare for a hurricane. An earthquake, he said, “isn’t like a friend who calls you beforehand to say he’s going to stop by your house.”
(Rowan Moore Gerety contributed to this report with Creole translation assistance.)