By Jeb Sharp
Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Despite the billions of dollars pledged by international donors, reconstruction has been painfully slow.
A million people still live in tents in the capital, Port au Prince, and symbolic buildings like the National Palace downtown still lie in ruins. Still, some neighborhoods are coming back to life.
One of the most uplifting places in Port au Prince is a fabrication yard run by Catholic Relief Services, where scores of workers are pounding nails, cutting plywood and loading trucks — creating the transitional shelters that bridge the gap between tents and permanent homes.
They are plywood structures with a door and a tin roof, designed to last about three years. Picture a shed you might see at Home Depot.
“In many cases, they’re better than what people lived in before and they’re in all likelihood going to become somewhat permanent,” said Christian Oakes, the engineering and construction program manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). “It’s a huge step up from a tent, but it’s not ideal.”
The shelters were originally intended for big open areas where aid groups like CRS could build lots at once. But they’re now also going up in neighborhoods around Port au Prince where residents have managed to clear enough rubble to put the structures up.
The “Odin” neighborhood is situated in a ravine in Port au Prince. The houses are nestled into the contours of the hillsides and stacked up higgledy piggledy.
Oakes and his colleagues couldn’t imagine working here at first. It was so dense and the land was carved up in odd sizes and shapes.
60 percent of the houses were destroyed. The ravine was full of rubble. But then they met 25 year old nursing student Santhia Soly and a few of her friends.
After the earthquake Soly and other residents ended up camping on private land just above their old homes. She remembers waking up every day and listening to the news, hoping the President would say something that would tell them what to do.
But he never did.
Then the owner of the land gave them a one-week deadline to clear out. Soly and her friends formed a committee and started knocking on doors, asking for help.
Eventually they were referred to Catholic Relief Services. When Benjamin Krause, program manager for CRS’s community resettlement and recovery program, came to see the ravine, he thought there was no way his organization could help.
“We took one look at this area,” Krause said. It was essentially completely destroyed, and the projects that we had been designing were not for an area like this. They were for an area with open space, where we could legitimately build large numbers of shelters very quickly.”
But the CRS staff were struck by how dedicated and organized Soly and her friends were. So they gave them picks, shovels, sledgehammers and wheelbarrows to see what they could do.
“After a couple of weeks they’d torn out several houses,” Krause said. “We didn’t believe them. When we saw how much they’d done so quickly we realized we had something special here.”
But Krause couldn’t imagine getting the shelter kits with their unwieldy plywood panels down the narrow footpaths. There are no roads through the houses here.
So CRS’s head carpenter designed a way to break the panels into smaller pieces. It worked.
Now the neighborhood is filling up with transitional shelters — and they are quickly being transformed into more permanent homes. People are building foundations around them, putting up brick walls next to the plywood ones and even inserting windows salvaged from their old, destroyed homes.
Santhia Soly’s shelter was the first one to go up here, back in June.
“It was a big day,” she said.
Soly’s home is right next to a church. It too was destroyed in the quake but the congregation still gathers on the same site, in a big tent.
She says the singing is a huge help. It makes them all forget what happened.
Touring Port au Prince a year after the earthquake is a pretty dispiriting experience. But there are a few spots like this one where you can actually hang on to the idea, and the promise, of reconstruction.