Seeking Closure: Returning To Haiti, Six Months After The Earthquake There

Kindergarten at the Ecole Marie Faucheline

A kindergarten class at the Ecole Marie Faucheline, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Marisa Penaloza/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza/NPR

I spent 10 days in Port-au-Prince, covering the news after the capital was jolted by the furious earthquake on Jan. 12, and I went back for a second tour last week to produce a two-part series that will begin airing tomorrow on Morning Edition. I have to admit to having mixed feelings about the assignment — excited to tackle it, but apprehensive about what I would see this time around, six months after the quake that killed an estimated 230,000 people.

Haiti is still trying to find a way to go about rebuilding. There is change, but not much significant progress.

The good news is that people are not dying; they have clean water and there has been no infectious disease outbreak since the disaster. Many children are now in classrooms. The formal and informal economies are more vibrant now — although I’m not sure the average Haitian can afford even staples since post-quake price gouging has become rampant — gasoline alone is $7 dollars a gallon, more than triple the pre-quake price.

In January, stray dogs would wander the streets of Port-au-Prince and howl these painful, deep howls all night long, as if they were afraid of the dark — or perhaps they were feeling lonely. Last week their absence was noticeable.

Without the howling, the city seemed a bit more serene, though still in the midst of chaos. Haiti remains plagued by tent cities, mountains of debris and the lack of opportunity.

Daytime temperatures in Haiti approach well into the 100s and the hurricane season has officially started. Rebuilding may have to take a back seat if Mother Nature turns violent and strikes in the form of a hurricane. The flimsy shelters will most likely not survive the storms forecasted for the summer.

The 7.0 magnitude quake was a disaster of shocking proportions. Six months later, more than 1.5 million people remain homeless. Haitians are angry. Victims are in a sort of limbo now — daily life remains miserable for those left homeless. People wait for some kind of normalcy and permanency while living in tents with very little privacy and exposed to heat, rain, and strangers. Jobs are scarce. Some of the humanitarian organizations have set up cash-for-work projects digging ditches and cleaning camps in preparation for the rainy season.

I covered the aftermath of the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004. I spent six emotionally intense weeks in Banda Aceh, and I haven't been back since. Like in Haiti, the destruction and loss of life in Southeast Asia were unimaginable.

The fact that I haven't seen the reconstruction of Aceh and how victims there are rebuilding their lives almost feels like skipping the last chapter of a good book. Selfishly, I thought that returning to Haiti would bring some kind of "closure" for me this time around.

But what I saw in Haiti left me feeling more unsettled.

Humanitarian help is there, but as a spokesperson for one aid group said, "There are things that money can't buy in Haiti." Perhaps the physical wounds of victims have been treated, but the emotional scars will take much longer to heal, if ever. Permanent housing and jobs will take a longer time to come, but at the very least Haitians deserve to know how long it will take to rebuild their lives.

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