The Forgotten Land
FL Today - Dec 8, 2011

Has the World Abandoned Haiti?

Last month, I traveled to Port-au-Prince as a volunteer for the 28th Carter Work Project, to help build homes for Haitian families displaced by the 2010 earthquake.

Nearly two years since the disaster, shockingly little has been done to rebuild the demolished capital city. An estimated 98% of the rubble remains on the ground. Over half a million refugees languish in tent cities without water, sanitation or food, vulnerable to outbreaks of cholera and malaria, epidemics of a bygone age. Many countries who pledged aid have reneged on their promises. Meanwhile, the United States has distributed less than 20% of its own relief funds. Less than 10% of that has gone to projects in the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Urban Wasteland

Port-au-Prince is a jumble of rusted roofs, rotting tarps, rebar, broken blocks. Street vendors -- beautiful, lithe women -- crouch in filth at the roadside, hocking black plantains, honey, sugarcane, fly-infested meat. The stench of garbage hangs over everything. Naked children bathe in sewage ditches. Styrofoam and plastic foul the embankments of rivers the color of spoiled milk. Refugees with jaundiced eyes wave at our buses, their faces distrustful, angelic, tinged with the knowledge of death.

Building the Shelters

For a week we worked in the sun and heat of Léogâne (the geographic epicenter of the quake), slamming in roofing nails, bloodying our fingers, fainting from heat exhaustion. The Haitian homeowners -- the fortunate ones, those who would be, hopefully, living six to a box -- labored alongside us. We slept ten to a tent, took cold showers, awoke before dawn, were united by the rhythm of our labors. We built 100 houses, a drop in the ocean, we knew, but tangible enough. They were sturdy things, anyway, proof of what can happen when man and material work in concert. And the roofs would not leak.

Jimmy Carter worked alongside us, his eyes sparkling. Sprightly, even at the age of 87. "Haiti is not the biggest project I've worked on with Habitat for Humanity," Carter said. "but in many ways, it's the most important." President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, devote one week a year to a Habitat project. "What we want is to help people without debasing them, and without elevating us."

An Uncertain Future

As the people of Haiti huddle among the ruins, philanthropists dream up ideas for the island's future. Harris Rosen, a hotelier in Orlando, envisions Carribean kibbutzes with modular, solar-powered homes. Jeffree Trudeau, of the World Bamboo Organization, hopes to spawn a new lumber industry on these desolate hills. Ideas flood into Haiti, but they are lost somehow on their way into the cities––polluted, sun-bleached by indifference. Dessicated as these white rivers.

Haiti is a brutal reminder of the disparity between words and actions. Habitat's village in Léogâne serves as an example of how relief money can be spent responsibly.

To learn more about Habitat for Humanity's effort in Haiti, visit Habitat's Homes and Hope in Haiti.