50 Years Creating a Hemisphere of Opportunity for All

Two years later: A long slow fight

By Daniel O'Neil

Two years ago, the ground in Port-au-Prince shook and tens of thousands of buildings collapsed. The January 12th earthquake was the worst disaster to ever hit the Americas. The early days after the earthquake were unimaginable. When I drive through some of the neighborhoods that I visited that first week, I get terrible flashbacks. Poor Haiti had been in such bad shape before the earthquake, I just couldn’t imagine how it would ever get rebuilt.

As we commemorate the second anniversary of the earthquake, there are lots of stories highlighting what has and has not been done. A lot of articles focus on the apparent slow progress with headlines like Haiti 2 years later: Half a million still in camps. Except that most people are not in camps because they lost their house and are waiting for someone to rebuild it. They are in the camps because they are desperately poor and have nowhere to turn. The Miami Heralds video, Nous Boke: Two Years Later nicely highlights this problem by talking with people living in the distant Corail camp who are desperate for work.

Nou Bouke: Two years later from The Miami Herald on Vimeo.

This desperation existed well before the earthquake. The earthquake made a bad situation much worse. The important question is where should Haiti be today? Given how bad the situation was before the earthquake and how bad the damage was, have we made good progress?

At the one year anniversary, I had strongly mixed feelings. On one hand, I was disappointed at the lack of progress. The camp populations seemed enormous. Although the rubble had been cleared from the roads, the wounds seemed very fresh. I wished that we had made greater progress. At the same time, I couldn’t image having worked harder or pushed my team any harder. I found the same reaction when I talked with others working to rebuild Haiti. We wished that we could have done more, but had no idea how we could have gone any faster.

At the second anniversary, I feel far better about the progress. The rubble is gone from most public spaces. The government’s program to empty six camps into sixteen neighborhoods (“6/16”) has emptied the camps that used to occupy Place St Pierre and Place Boyer—two of the most visible camps. As I drive around Port-au-Prince, life seems to be much more normal.

One of the challenges is that change comes slowly. After the earthquake, we all hoped that Haiti could be quickly rebuilt and rebuilt better. We dreamed of modernizing Port-au-Prince to have wider streets, of building modern building, of making Port-au-Prince into a livable city. Two years later, we are still dreaming of this. In Delmas, we are working with an urban planner who has drawn pictures of townhouses on palm tree lined streets. Maybe someday we will get there. However, we have to first finish repairing the existing buildings, clear out the collapsed buildings, and start repairing the streets.

When I left Haiti in May 2010, I did not intend to return. I was proud of what I had accomplished and wanted to try something new. I also feared that if I stayed in Haiti, that Haiti would break my heart. I stayed and it did. But I am glad that I stayed. Brick by brick, micro-entrepreneur by micro entrepreneur, we are helping to rebuild Haiti. It is a long slow fight, but I believe that we are moving in the right direction.

Daniel O'Neil - PADF Senior Program Director, Caribbean
Mr. O'Neil is a civil engineer with over 25 years of experience in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. He is a leading expert on a range of issues, including Haitian-Dominican borderlands, community-based disaster management, and urban development in Haiti.