Many are still looking for food, shelter a year after the earthquake in Haiti

LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) — The tin-roofed house Erline Castel and Dieunord Ernest rented was among more than 130,000 homes damaged or destroyed by a powerful earthquake that struck southern Haiti last year, killing more than 2,200 people.

In the days after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, they gathered sheets, tarps and wood and built a shelter for themselves and their three children. More than a year after the August 14, 2021 earthquake, they are still living in the same makeshift tent as hundreds of others, still wondering if anyone will help them.

If recent history is any guide, few people will.

The Associated Press visited several camps around the southern coastal town of Les Cayes, which was one of the worst-hit areas, and again and again people complained that no government officials had visited them despite repeated promises to come 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 earthquake.

On Thursday morning she tried to breastfeed her 9-month-old daughter. But after a year of surviving on scraps in a makeshift camp, Castel ran out of milk. The tiny girl, Wood Branan Ernest, fell asleep during her failed attempt.

“I have nothing to offer them,” said Castel.

The worst thing is that others victimize the earthquake victims.

In one camp, friends of the property owner are trying to get back the land where the refugees settled. Thugs have demolished shacks, thrown stones at families and tried to set fire to the camp twice in recent months.

The camp, like several others, also floods quickly when it rains, forcing hundreds to flee to higher ground as their belongings get soaked.

“I don’t know how long I can go on like this,” said Renel Cene, a 65-year-old who lost four children in the quake and once toiled nearby fields of vetiver, a plant whose roots produce an oil used in fine perfumes.

Families walk to get water from the well, sometimes letting the sediment settle before drinking it. Many do not have jobs. They rely on neighbors for their only meal of the day.

Those living in the camps say they heard on the radio that local government officials have met with international leaders about the suffering after the earthquake, but they wonder if they will ever get help.

“So far, everything has been promises,” said 55-year-old farmer Nicolas Wilbert Ernest. “I don’t know how long I have to wait.”

On the anniversary of the earthquake, a group of government officials held a press conference outlining the progress of the administration of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who began leading the country shortly after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse 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 offered $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 do not have access to adequate schools and that the majority of the 1,250 destroyed or damaged schools have not been rebuilt. He noted that a lack of funds and a spike in violence have delayed reconstruction.

Increasingly powerful gangs have seized the main road leading from the capital Port-au-Prince to Haiti’s southern region, disrupting efforts to deliver food, water and other basic goods to those in need.

Many organizations were forced to pay bribes to avoid kidnapping staff while driving south.

Cindy Cox-Roman, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit HelpAGE USA, said there is “a wonderful feeling on the part of people there that they are alone in this.”

Cassendy Charles, emergency program director 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 group has been forced to use boats and planes to transport supplies to the south, but even that is complicated because the port is in the Cite Soleil slum, where more than 200 people are believed to have been killed recently as rival gangs battled. terrain.

“The situation is unstable,” he said.

Meanwhile, double-digit inflation has deepened poverty. Marie Dadie Durvergus, a kindergarten teacher who lives with her two children in a 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 second-hand clothes, said the money she had saved to buy more clothes went to feed her children. There was nothing left to send them to school or buy them uniforms or books.

“And the kids ask me, ‘Mom, when am I going back to school?’ My friends say, “What about me?” he 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 on the days I do, it makes me feel good to be able to share coffee with my neighbors,” said the 48-year-old mother of two.

But a moment later, she said she was worried her 14-year-old daughter might rush into the camp. Rape was common in 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 major earthquake. He and other self-appointed leaders have written dozens of handwritten letters and visited local nonprofits to try to get the attention of government officials.

“We’re doing everything we can to survive,” he said.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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