LES CAYES, Haiti—The cinderblock home with a tin roof that Erline Castel and Dieunord Ernest rented was among the more than 130,000 houses damaged or destroyed by a powerful earthquake that struck southern Haiti last year, killing more than 2,200 people.
In the days after the magnitude 7.2 quake hit, they gathered sheets, tarpaulins and wood and made a shelter for themselves and their three children. More than a year after the Aug. 14, 2021 quake, the family is still living in the same makeshift tent like hundreds of others, and still wondering if anyone will help them.
If recent history is any guide, few people will.
The Associated Press visited several camps surrounding the southern coastal city of Les Cayes, which was one of the hardest hit areas, and over and over again people complained that no government official had visited them despite repeated promises that they would come to help.
As the family waited for help, Ernest died of prostate cancer last year. So today, Castel is alone, fighting for her family’s survival like many struggling to restart their lives after the quake.
On Thursday morning, she tried to get her 9-month-old daughter to suckle. But after a year of surviving on scraps in a makeshift camp, Castel had no milk. The tiny girl, Wood Branan Ernest, fell asleep during her failed attempt.
“I don’t have anything to provide for them,” Castel said.
What’s worse, others are victimizing the quake victims.
In one camp, friends of the property owner are trying to take back the land where the refugees settled. Thugs have ripped apart the shacks, thrown rocks at families and tried to set the camp on fire twice in recent months.
The camp, like several others, also floods quickly when it rains, forcing hundreds to flee to higher ground as they watch their belongings get drenched.
“I don’t know how long I can continue like this,” said Renel Cene, a 65-year-old who lost four children in the earthquake and once toiled the nearby fields of vetiver, a plant whose roots produce an oil used in fine perfumes.
Families walk to get well water, sometimes letting the sediment settle before drinking it. Many have no work. They rely on the neighbors for their only meal of the day.
Those living in the camps say they’ve heard on the radio that local government officials have met with international leaders about the post-earthquake plights, but they question if they’ll ever be helped.
“So far, it’s all been promises,” said 55-year-old farmer Nicolas Wilbert Ernest. “I don’t know how long I have to wait.”
On the earthquake’s anniversary, a group of government officials held a press conference describing the advances of the administration of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who began leading the country shortly after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7, 2021.
The government says it has planted 400 tons of beans, cleaned 10,000 meters of canals, distributed 22,000 bags of fertilizer and donated more than 300,000 baskets filled with basic goods. 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 Grande-Anse River in early August.
But UNICEF warned last week that more than 250,000 children still have no access to adequate schools and that the majority of 1,250 schools destroyed or damaged have not been rebuilt. It noted that a lack of funds and a spike in violence have delayed reconstruction.
Increasingly powerful gangs have seized control of the main road leading 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.
A lot of organizations have been forced to pay bribes to avoid staff being kidnapped while driving to the south.
Cindy Cox-Roman, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit HelpAGE USA, said there is “a great feeling on the part of people there that they’re alone in this.”
Cassendy Charles, emergency program manager for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Mercy Corps, estimates it could take five years for the region to fully recover from the earthquake. The organization has been forced to use boats and planes to ferry supplies to the south, but even that is complicated because the port is located by the Cite Soleil slum, where more than 200 people are believed to have been killed recently as rival gangs fought over 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 one 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. There was nothing left over to send them to school or buy them uniforms or books.
“And the kids are asking me, ‘Mom, when am I going back to school?’ My friends are going, ‘What about me?’” she said.
On a recent morning, Laguerre stood in line with other people in front of tent #8, where Bauzile Yvenue was making sweet coffee for neighbors in need, a system that has become key to survival.
“I can’t do this every morning, but the days I do it, it makes me feel good that I’m able to share coffee with my neighbors,” said the 48-year-old mother of two.
But a moment later, she said she worries that her 14-year-old daughter could be raped at the camp. Rape was a common occurrence at similar camps that proliferated 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 big quake. He and other self-appointed leaders have written dozens of letters by hand and visited local nonprofits to try and catch the attention of government officials.
“We are doing everything we can to survive,” he said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Image credits: AP/Odelyn Joseph