Six Months After Haiti Earthquake, Progress Is Slow
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we remember a pivotal figure in the world of gospel music, the Grammy Award winning singer, composer and pastor Walter Hawkins. He died over the week and we'll tell you more about him.
But first, it's been six months since the earthquake in Haiti left an estimated 230,000 people dead, more than 280,000 buildings destroyed, more than a million people homeless. World leaders who have closely watched the crisis are concerned. Here's former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
President BILL CLINTON: I know it is horribly frustrating and the fact that this earthquake hit the most densely populated part of the country means that we have, on steroids, what is always the biggest problem after any natural disaster, which is the housing issue.
MARTIN: We've also tried to keep tabs on the rebuilding efforts. So we've called upon two men who are watching it closely and are deeply involved. Reporter Ralph Cheriza joined us on January 14th, just two days after the Haiti quake hit. He was working then for a station in Florida serving the Haitian community. And since then he's left his job to start a community school in Haiti. He joins us from his office in Riviera Beach, Florida.
Also with us, Bob Perito. He's the director of the Haiti program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He's also joined us previously, and he's with us once again in Studio 4B. Thank you, also, for joining us.
Mr. BOB PERITO (Haiti Program Director, U.S. Institute for Peace): Good to be with you today.
Mr. RALPH CHERIZA (Reporter): Thank you very much for having me.
MARTIN: Mr. Cheriza, let's start with you. The last time we spoke you told us you'd finally gotten a hold of your brother who lived in Haiti. He reported that your sister, mom and he had all survived. May I ask how they're doing now?
Mr. CHERIZA: Well, they're doing well. They're trying to survive. They moved to the countryside, except for my who brother went back to Port-au-Prince. Since he's an engineer, he was hoping to be able to find a job as part of the rebuilding. He's still trying.
MARTIN: Can I ask you, what is their day-to-day existence? What do they do all day? Do they have any safe place to stay? What are their circumstance?
Mr. CHERIZA: Well, they are in the countryside where they do not have much to do except to hope that things will get better. And as for my brother, he went back to Port-au-Prince in the hope of finding a job. So he's been trying to find a job and go from place to place, wherever there's a possibility he might get a job to see if his background as an engineer would be put to use.
MARTIN: And where is he living?
Mr. CHERIZA: Well, he's living with some of the friends that he has, who had buildings still standing. But most of the time they're just out on the street trying to under tents and trying to survive.
MARTIN: So, Bob Perito, talk to us a bit, both, first about the relief effort and how successful that is and your assessment of a rebuilding effort. So let's take those separately. We understand that the U.S. brought in some 20,000 troops at the height of its involvement. Many of those troops have since drawn down. Countries around the globe pledged billions of dollars in aid. So, first I want to ask, are immediate needs being met?
Mr. PERITO: Well, the emergency response phase in the operation went well. The United States and other countries rush to emergency assistance. The international community is very good at doing this. We're really have people that are spring-loaded and ready to respond. And so that part of the operation when well. In March there was a U.N. conference. Donors came forward international donors came forward and pledged over $5 billion.
Subsequently, however, things have begun to slow down and almost have stalled. We're stuck on two what I call the two Rs, which are rubble and resettlement. Port-au-Prince remains clogged with the rubble from the destruction of the city. And so the removal of that rubble is going extraordinarily slowly. And then resettlement, more than hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still living in makeshift camps under tarps and plastic sheathing.
Their position has become increasingly precarious as the hurricane season begins in the Caribbean. And so that part of the operation has bogged down. And this is the more difficult phase of the operation because as President Clinton has said, the intent is to build back better. But when you try to build back better, then you have to give consideration to these kinds of things.
And so, and then finally, I think Haiti has, like, third in complicating situation, and that is that Haiti must hold national elections this year. The parliament has served its term and gone out of office. The president has just a few more months left in his term. There must be national elections. And the president has said these elections will be held in November. But holding national elections in Haiti at any time is a difficult task.
And now under these current circumstances, it's extraordinarily difficult. And we've already began to get street demonstrations. And, you know, the politics of the situation there is complicating everything.
MARTIN: Time magazine says that the remaining rubble on and just off the streets could fill the Superdome, the Louisiana Superdome, five times over. Do you have a sense of why it's taken so long to remove this? Is it organizational? Is it environmental? Is it that people aren't sure where to put it? What's the issue?
Mr. PERITO: It's across the board. First of all, there is no national plan. There is no Haitian government plan for rubble removal. There are no dedicated sites. There's only one place that the Haitian government has said that rubble can be dumped. And so, if you remember back to the clearing of the rubble from Ground Zero after 9/11, there was a tremendous highly mechanized operation that went on for months to move rubble out of that one location.
Now, Port-au-Prince is sort of that on steroids. However, there was an effort in the beginning to use a lot of mechanized equipment. That has been replaced by projects sponsored by nongovernmental organizations to pay people in a cash-for-work thing to move money by pails and buckets and, you know, pushcarts. All of this is bogged down.
There are a number of competing problems here. One, no national plan, no national sites, no national approach to this. And then, two, property owners in Port-au-Prince are afraid to clear land because there's no control over where people will locate. And so people fear if I take the rubble off my lot, people will move in and camp on my lot. And so there's no way to prevent that from happening.
And then there's this fear that a lot of people have of the fact that the rubble is still contaminated. People are still buried in the rubble. There are a lot of reasons not to go looking. And so this is a really complex situation.
MARTIN: Ralph, can I get your sense of this? In your efforts to build a school, could I just ask you, how is that going and what do you consider what's been the most hopeful thing so far? What's been the major obstacle so far?
Mr. CHERIZA: Well, the most hopeful sign is that we ask, we wanted to go to the countryside and build in the province. And we've had some of the people they were saying, okay, we have land that we could give to something like that. But the most frustrating part is to get Haitians to commit to come up with the funding for something like that.
We, back in April, we addressed the community, the Haitian community here in Palm Beach, and said this is what we want to do. And we're getting ready to go and do town hall meeting to get Haitian to assume some responsibility and raise the money so that we can build that school.
It's very difficult to get that commitment because most Haitians, they have that self-perception of impotence. They feel that they cannot do it. And they're waiting for the international community to do the things that are needed in Haiti right now because they don't think that they're able to do it.
MARTIN: Why do you think they don't think they're able to do it? Do they not trust the governance? They feel that the money will be wasted? Or they don't feel they have the technical ability? Or is it people are depressed because this is a major trauma. What do you the think the factors there that are promoting that attitude?
Mr. CHERIZA: In term of leadership, we basically often right now we don't have we're having elections later this year, but we do not have a national leader that we could look up to and say, okay, this is the person who will lead the way. So that's one of the frustration on the part of Haitians. We're looking at the national stage and we're not inspired by anybody. There's no grand vision for Haitians to say this is where we go and this is how we're going to get there and for people to rally behind that grand vision.
MARTIN: Bob Perito, we have a couple minutes left. I want to ask you, what are you most concerned about? I know hurricane season is approaching. Obviously the housing situation there is of great concern. What is your greatest concern going forward? And is there anything the international community should be doing, in your view, to be most helpful at this critical time?
Mr. PERITO: Yeah, I think that the problem is one of leadership. The Haitian government, which was never very aggressive even in its best times, has been traumatized by this event. And we have to be aware of the fact that maybe 25 percent of the civil servants were killed, many more injured, almost all the ministries were destroyed, including the presidential palace. So it's very hard for the Haitian government to move forward in this.
But in the absence of effective Haitian government leadership, the international community, you know, has to take off and move forward. There is an Interim Reconstruction Commission, Bill Clinton and the prime minister of Haiti are the leaders of this. This commission has held only one meeting. They have not yet identified and brought into office an executive director who will be the day-to-day manager of this.
And so, you know, somebody has to step up. And the international community, I think, has been waiting for the Haitian government to step forward. The Haitian government's not capable of doing that. And so I think the time is now for the international community for President Clinton, for the prime minister of Haiti, for this interim commission to step up and start moving forward. Absent that, I think we're in real trouble.
MARTIN: Bob Perito is the director of the Haiti program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. Ralph Cheriza joined us from his office in Florida. As we mentioned, since the quake in January, Mr. Cheriza left his job as a radio reporter and host in southern Florida to try to start a community school in Haiti.
And I hope you'll both continue to keep us up do that on events there. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. CHERIZA: Thank you very much.
Mr. PERITO: Look forward to it.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.