Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're coming up on the one year anniversary of the massive earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed more than 200,000 people. Today, rubble still covers much of the capital. More than a million people remain in improvised huts in makeshift encampments. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that some progress is being made in Haiti, but it's coming slowly.

JASON BEAUBIEN: On January 12th of 2010, an earthquake of historic proportions hit a country unaccustomed to and unprepared for seismic activity. The violent shaking destroyed the national palace. It snapped the neck of the control tower at the airport. It toppled the piers at the port into the harbor. Cinder block houses disintegrated, leaving Port-au-Prince shrouded in a gray, powdery cloud of dust.

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

BEAUBIEN: A year later, parts of the city still appear post-apocalyptic. The damage, both physical and psychological, is everywhere. Thirty-six-year-old Renold Pierre didn't just lose his house.

Mr. RENOLD PIERRE: (Through translator) This picture you can see here, my children. Both of them died in the earthquake.

BEAUBIEN: Pierre's sons were two and four years old when the quake hit. The photo shows two round-cheeked boys propped on the hood of a parked car. Back in January, a woman who was trying to excavate one of her relatives from a collapsed office building told me there isn't a family in Haiti that isn't crying right now.

Almost a year later, the tears don't flow quite so freely, but they well up in Pierre's eyes as he gazes at the snapshot of the kids he lost.

Reginald Boulos, the head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, says it's still hard to comprehend the scale of this disaster.

Mr. REGINALD BOULOS (Director, Haitian Chamber of Commerce): Given the proportion of the destruction, 200,000, 300,000 people dead over - what? Two million people, 10 percent of the population? Imagine any city in the U.S. where 10 percent of the population would die overnight. People don't realize, I think, underestimate what this catastrophe was.

BEAUBIEN: Boulos says yes, the recovery has been slow, but sometimes he feels outsiders are asking too much of this impoverished nation. He recalls how on the day after the quake, he was negotiating with the minister of Finance to release shipping containers of food that were trapped on the docks.

Mr. BOULOS: This minister had just buried his son, who died in the earthquake. And he was there working with us. This is not highlighted enough, of the resilience, the dignity, the courage that people showed after the earthquake.

BEAUBIEN: The Finance Ministry's headquarters, like most government buildings, lay in ruins. The streets were blocked with debris. With more than 200,000 people dead, one of the first tasks was just to dispose of the bodies, many of which were dumped in mass graves. Others were burned in the streets.

Within days encampments sprung up anywhere where there was open space. People built shacks out of sheets, tarps, cardboard, scraps of wood.

(Soundbite of music)

BEAUBIEN: And a year later, most of them are still living in the same chaotic settlements. At a camp called La Piste, 50,000 people live on what used to be the military airport. Shops and simple restaurants have sprung up among the shacks. People bath in the open, splashing water from plastic buckets. Kids scamper in every direction. Even small casinos have popped up where you can wager a few coins on a carnival-style roulette table.

In front of Terese Basil's rusting sheet metal shack, a dumpster overflows with garbage.

Ms. TERESE BASIL: (Through translator) The trash is a problem for everyone, for everyone in the camp. So they come sometimes. They pick up the trash, but they don't do it often.

BEAUBIEN: Just behind Basil's house, Jean Yvonne's shelter is a patchwork of tarps stretched over a frame of sticks. The hut is just large enough for a single bed, which Yvonne shares with his wife and four kids.

Mr. JEAN YVONNE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Yvonne has no regular work. He says, every morning, he goes out and tries to find a way to feed his kids. But his life is stuck, and he says he has no idea when he'll leave here, when he'll move back into a regular home.

Despite more than 10,000 relief agencies working in the country and international donors pledging billions of dollars to reconstruct Haiti, most of the country hasn't yet gotten to reconstruction. In some neighborhoods, the process of clearing the rubble has barely begun. In others, men with sledge hammers demolish houses one swing at a time.

(Soundbite of hammering and shoveling rubble)

BEAUBIEN: Most of the debris that has been removed has been shoveled by work crews into trucks. Some parts of downtown were cleared with bulldozers, but these barren plots are mainly where government offices once stood. Schools have reopened, but in temporary plywood classrooms. As of November, aid agencies had built no new permanent housing in the Port-au-Prince area. And nationwide, fewer than 20,000 transitional shelters had been constructed for the roughly 1.5 million people displaced by the quake.

Mr. NIGEL FISHER (United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, Haiti): Challenges are huge and what people need to realize is we are not just rebuilding after an earthquake.

BEAUBIEN: Nigel Fisher, the United Nation's coordinator for humanitarian affairs in Haiti, says it's not fair to say that nothing has been accomplished over the last year. Walking through Ravine Pintade, a steep ravine in Port-au-Prince that's now a field of rubble, Fisher says even before the quake, most Haitians lacked access to clean water, proper sewage facilities and health care.

Mr. FISHER: We're not rebuilding, because what existed for most poverty-stricken Haitians before was totally unacceptable. It's building. It's transformation, and that's going to take a long time.

BEAUBIEN: Making things more difficult, the cholera epidemic that hit in October has diverted resources away from the earthquake recovery effort and killed more than 3,000 people.

Haiti is on life-support, with international donors scrambling just to provide the very basics: water, tarps for shelter, bare-bones health care.

Mr. RICHARD WIDMAIER (Director, Radio Metropole): Haiti is doing what Haiti regularly does.

BEAUBIEN: Richard Widmaier is the head of Radio Metropole, an independent radio and television network in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. WIDMAIER: Haitians get up every morning and they try just to live off whatever they have. And they work. They're hard workers. And they try to reconstruct, those who can. And it's just their daily living in the circumstances they are right now.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: The scars of last year's earthquake remain everywhere.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: At the church Christ the King, people gather for mass inside the shell of what was once their grand cathedral. Only the outer walls of the church survived. Tentacles of rebar and jagged concrete buttresses reach towards the heavens. Like so many people in Port-au-Prince, the pastor says he has no idea when he'll be able to rebuild.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: But if for a second you focus on the parishioners' faces, on their clean white shirts, on the girls in their colorful dresses, or if you close your eyes and just listen, you can hear that against this shattered backdrop, life goes on in Haiti.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.