Haiti's healing far from finished 5 years after deadly earthquake

Haiti officially marks the five-year anniversary of the earthquake today with a ceremony at the site of the mass graves near Port au Prince, but the work of rehabilitating the country and its people has no end in sight.

Country still struggling with physical, emotional, social and political scars of disaster

The rubble of houses damaged by the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and subsequently razed by bulldozers in downtown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, continues today. (Dieu Nalio Chery/The Associated Press)

Port au Prince resident Laurent Dunel says he’ll never forget being handed his father’s severed arm by a search crew member after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Dunel’s mother also died that day in her church, when a wall crashed down on her. 

Today is a day Dunel says he'll spend at home alone with his memories. 

Haiti officially marks the five-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake with a ceremony at the site of the mass graves near Port au Prince, where the bodies of so many of the 230,000 killed by the 2010 disaster were unceremoniously dumped.

It will also be marked by smaller ceremonies in Port au Prince itself, including one at a UN compound that crumbled in the quake, and at the Canadian embassy where there’s an inukshuk in memory of the 58 Canadians who died in the disaster.

CBC News met Dunel in January 2010, outside the crumpled Hotel Montana where his father had worked as a bartender. Dunel’s father was trapped inside under the rubble, and eventually died. 

Workers were busy over the past few days trying to plant flowers and trees at the site of the mass grave where Monday's government memorial was to be held, just outside of Port au Prince. (Marc Lee Steed)

"I didn't have any materials to dig, but I could speak to my father for 12 hours,” he told CBC’s Paul Hunter in 2010. "I speak to him from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., OK, he was alive.”

CBC News contacted Dunel last week and he said that after Hunter left, the search teams asked if they could cut through his father’s body in order to unblock a passage to rescue a woman who was still alive. Dunel consulted his brothers and gave the OK, rationalizing that they knew their father would have wanted to save a life.

Five years later, graphic and tragic memories like these are still vivid to survivors and the country still faces major social and political challenges.

Besides those at the remembrance ceremonies, today may also see protesters in the streets calling for President Martelly's resignation. The country's elections have been delayed for more than a year and a half, and the Senate and Chamber of Deputy's mandate could run out at midnight if a last-minute deal is not reached. 

Dunel Laurent lost both his parents in the 2010 earthquake. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

There have been small protests since last month when Prime Minister Lamothe stepped down, but ironically the political crisis comes to a head today, the same day as the anniversary of the disaster that has caused so much suffering for Haiti. 

There was an estimated $7 billion in damage caused by what has been considered the most destructive natural disaster of modern times. It got worldwide attention from Bill Clinton and Hollywood stars such as Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie. The international community pledged $10 billion to help Haiti “build back better,” to borrow a UN catch phrase from the time.

Canada played a part in that effort, spending more than $800 million in Haiti since 2010. Some of that money has gone towards helping to get people out of the tent cities that sprang up as mini villages after so many damaged homes were demolished. 

News homes are still being built in the hills of Port au Prince. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Canadians were moved to give millions of dollars to charities, as well. Donations to the Canadian Red Cross helped fund the new construction of temporary plywood homes for the deaf and disabled in 2010, for example.

But two years after the Canadian Red Cross’s shelters were built, the organization has pulled out and handed the project over to the Haitian government, and its future isn’t clear. Today, the residents say they feel abandoned. 

“Anything that was built as a T- shelter (temporary shelter) became a P- shelter (permanent shelter),” said Marc Lee Steed, CBC’s local translator. “It’s crazy to think about temporary shelters in Haiti." 

Meanwhile, the Red Cross is still working on other projects in the country, such as the building of the Saint-Michel Hospital in Jacmel.

Parts of Haiti's public infrastructure has been upgraded as part of the rebuilding efforts since the earthquake. Some of the streets in Port au Prince now have solar street lamps, for example. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

There are also some new hotels - the Best Western International and the Marriott - and a push for tourism. There are hillsides of homes now painted bright colours inspired by Haitian artist Prefete Duffaut. There are some solar streets lamps paid for by the UN. And there are new cinder block homes in various stages of completion, many with the rebar jutting out. 

But not all the money pledged by international sources has been delivered. And there are also plenty of questions about how money was, and continues to be, spent.

An $18 million U.S. Olympic park opened in July 2014 funded by the International Olympic Committee, its stakeholders and the Haitian government, for example, called The Sport for Hope Center. When CBC News visited it on Friday, it sat empty, not a car in the parking lot. 

The homes on this hillside in the Petionville neighbourhood of Port au Prince were painted bright colours in the style of Prefete Duffaut, a famous Haitian artist from Jacmel who painted mythic cities. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

The Sport for Hope Center sits on a plain below a sprawling new shantytown on the hillside overlooking it. The rebuilt area, called Canaan, houses a quarter of a million people in a makeshift community of tin shacks and cinder-block homes. There is no running water, sewage, or electricity here. 

Mike Jonet is a resident of Canaan who lost his job working as a janitor at the U.S. embassy, and now takes care of local orphans.

"This not no city, it’s a slum,” he said. “These people are living (but) they are living very bad. This is not the way people should live. They don’t look good at all. Them people are suffering big time. They are suffering."

The Haitian government and the International Olympic Committee built the Centre Sportif pour l'Espoir at a cost of millions. The seldom-used complex sits just down the hill from the sprawling new ramshackle development called Canaan, which now houses close to a quarter of a million people who live without services such as electricity, running water or sewers, proper schools or roads. (Marc Lee Steed)

And looking out at the Olympic park is irritating, he says. The kids from Canaan see the park on the plain below them every day, but they aren’t allowed to use it, he said, adding that it’s more a place for wealthy kids who are brought in by bus.

"Just looking at it every day … and we can’t go inside. We can’t even go inside. And this is very bad," he said. "They made it for kids to play."

Clearly, rebuilding after a disaster that caused $7 billion in damage would be a challenge for any nation to tackle in five years. But for Haiti, whose government buildings and records were destroyed by the earthquake, it’s proving to be a monumental struggle - one to which there’s no clear end in sight.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?