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A Slow Recovery in Haiti

By Charles King

February 22, 2010

It has rained twice in Port-au-Prince over the last week. People are soaked, but beyond that, each rain is elevating the health concerns. The rains fill up and overflow latrines. Larger encampments that have been encouraged as an alternative to squatting on rubble and sleeping in the street at night are ripe for transmission of disease. And, of course, fetid pools of water are perfect for malarial mosquitoes to breed, and flies hover over every plate of food.

At our base camp, we are putting in place more vigorous practices around hygiene, but everyone is aware that the risk of disease outbreak grows with each passing day. The only thing that is clear is that there still isn't a coherent strategy on the part of the government, the United Nations and USAID for how to address these growing concerns.

That isn't to say that a recovery of sorts isn't happening. At least half a dozen grocery stores have reopened in Port-au-Prince, three or four in Petion-Ville alone. The one I visited had a line of SUVs waiting down Delmas Avenue to get in the parking lot. Much like the gas stations immediately after the earthquake, fights are breaking out as people jockey for a parking spot. Inside, the shelves are well stocked. A "delko" or electric generator keeps the meat and beverage cases cold.

About a third of the customers are relief workers from all over the world. A team of young Japanese Red Cross workers push a cart in the long checkout line, filled to the brim with ice cold beer. Other shoppers are Haitians who have enough wealth to drive an SUV and have cash. Credit card machines still aren't operating, I am told.

Standing inside the grocery story, one could imagine that the earthquake never happened. Other than the larger number of foreigners in the store, there is one thing that stands out to signal an event. In the cash register, all the bills are crisp and new. Anyone who has ever handled Haitian Goud knows that this country circulates its bills until they are tattered ribbons.

Another sign of recovery is the removal of rubble. Last Sunday, the school ground across from Centre Medico was leveled with a bulldozer. I realize that this is progress, but at the same time it is hard to watch, knowing that there are scores of now decayed bodies of children who will never be recovered.

Most of the rubble from the school was hauled away in dump trucks on Sunday. But for some strange reason, a huge pile of it was left right in the middle of the street, just past the health center. So now there is a large vacant lot and a new obstacle for people who live down the hill to walk around .

Disposal of rubble, like disposal of other waste, is a huge problem for which there seems to be no plan. In some parts of the city, rubble is being piled up on dividers in the middle of broad avenues. Other of it is being dumped in the wetlands, just beyond Citi Soliel, the huge and teaming slum next to the port.

There is another sign of recovery, sort of. While there are many people still in the field hospitals recovering from major injuries or amputations, and the emergency "rooms" are still full, the cases coming in reflect the emergency room of any big urban hospital: A gunshot or stab wound, a motorcycle accident, a heart attack.

Peter Sanaman, who has been volunteering/networking at the University of Miami field hospital whenever our clinics close, tells me that while some medical staff are pulling out, there are still way too many bumping into each other. He has tried to recruit them to come to our clinics, in particular, encouraging people to go up to St. Marc, where we have actually seen the largest demand and have the least staff. But volunteers are still afraid to leave the protection of the airport and UN compound. The military still spouts the warning: "We can't be responsible for your safety."

Some of the big relief organizations are beginning to plan their exit strategies. Peter tells me that conversations have begun about shutting down the University of Miami field hospital. There is a fear of "mission drift" now that the initial disaster response is over. Meanwhile, the airport opened this last Friday to commercial traffic. Delta tells us that they will be ending our extra checked baggage privilege on March 15.

Update: Dr. John Weinstein, who heads to Port-au-Prince tomorrow, reports that his tent drive has already brought in donations of about 80 tents in just one week! He is taking 30 with him as checked luggage. This will be enough to ensure that all of the Haitian staff and volunteers at the clinic, along with the security guards at the base camp each have one. We will be sending the rest of the tents down with a team that is flying on Wednesday. I am hoping that we get enough so that we can send fifty or so to our friends in Jacmel.

Correction: In an earlier blog, I reported that the hotel in Jacmel had fallen in the second large earthquake. Happily, I was misinformed. The hotel is standing and open for business, apparently now filled with people who have lost their homes and can afford to pay for a hotel room. Jobanny, who had made friends with the manager, went and checked it out.

Read all of King's blog posts from Haiti

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