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Opinion: For those who lived through the 2010 earthquake, the tremors are a recurring nightmare

Concern aid worker Makayla Palazzo gives a first-hand account of conditions in Haiti after the recent earthquake.

Makayla Palazzo

Updated Aug 27th 2021, 1:19 PM

THE FIRST THING that strikes you, as you travel through the region of Haiti rocked by the 14 August earthquake, is the overwhelming sense of shock among the people.

I arrived in the city of Les Cayes three days after the quake. The people I met, among the rubble of what was previously their homes and businesses, were still numb, unable to process what had occurred.

I spoke to an old woman in a makeshift camp beside the remains of her home. White tarpaulin supported by partially damaged walls provided a temporary roof. Clothes were strung over a rope that hung between the rafters of the damaged structure.

2021-aug-haiti-earthquake A member of Concern’s staff viewing a fallen building in Les Cayes Haiti, that housed a pharmacy and two apartments. Source: Makayla Palazzo/Concern Worldwide

A few tin pots and jugs were piled on a dirty sheet draped over a table, alongside a white plastic chair. Rubble and sheets of rusting corrugated iron were strewn all around.

“Are you planning to re-build?” I asked. “I have no hope,” she replied. “Re-build? I sell peanuts for a living, how can I rebuild my house?”

Grief-stricken

For others, the numbing shock is mixed with unbearable grief. I met a man standing near the remains of a three-storey building. The entire front of the structure had collapsed, with each of the upper floors sloping towards the ground at the front of the building.

Sections of the tiled floors in the upper levels were visible, along with sheets of corrugated iron from the roof and twisted steel rods which once provided the building’s structural support. The rest was a pile of concrete rubble like a wrecking ball had been used on it.

This has been the man’s hotel. He was devastated by the loss of his business, but he was also grieving. One of his housekeeping staff had lost her life when the building fell. Other staff had been pulled alive from the rubble, one had lost a leg.

haiti-earthquak Rosenite Durand sits outside her house destroyed after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Manich, Les Cayes. Source: Lucien Junior Telasmond/Concern Worldwide

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake has killed over 2,200 people and left another 12,000 injured and over 650,000 people in need of humanitarian aid. Some 340 people are reported missing. And those numbers are still rising as rescuers reach the last of the remote towns and villages in the southwestern peninsula.

The stories of loss and grief were repeated wherever we stopped, and were evident even in the villages we drove through on the five hour trip from the capital, Port-au-Prince. Several times we have had to drive around handwritten signs which villagers put out in the middle of the road pleading for assistance.

Holiday paradise destroyed

Large roadside billboards promoted the area as a tropical paradise, with photos of rolling green hillsides and turquoise seas. What I saw during my trip was unrecognisable in comparison.

People are traumatised. At one point, I was talking to a family of eight sleeping outside their crumbled home, when suddenly everyone began yelling and running for the open. Confused, I asked what had happened and was told a small aftershock – so small that I didn’t even register it – had sent people into a panic.
For those who lived through this earthquake and the even bigger quake in 2010, these tremors are like a recurring nightmare.

The purpose of our trip to Les Cayes has been to assess the needs of local communities, establish what aid can be provided by local and international humanitarian organisations, and work with the Haitian authorities to put an organised and efficient aid operation in place.

haiti-earthquak Residents of Camp-Perrin sit outside a house destroyed after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in Camp-Perrin, Les Cayes, Haiti. Source: Lucien Junior Telasmond/Concern Worldwide

Although Concern has worked in Haiti since 1994, we were not operating in this part of the island when the earthquake struck. As part of our emergency response, we are collaborating with local and international partners to enable us to respond quickly.

Despite considerable logistical challenges, that aid is beginning to flow into the region this week. Our partners have begun delivering supplies of essential items such as soap, buckets, toothbrushes and toilet paper to help 11,000 people whose homes have either been destroyed or badly damaged.

We are also supporting partners to distribute shelter kits that contain items such as plastic sheeting, blankets and cooking utensils – the kinds of things people need when they’re displaced from their homes.

In the coming days, we will begin distributing funds to local groups that support community-led efforts to rebuild and meet needs. We will also be providing direct cash transfers to families to help them purchase the things they need most after the earthquake.

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After-effects of a disaster

There are bigger challenges coming down the line. Thousands of people are sleeping on the streets. The tropical storm season has arrived, with Storm Grace lashing the region last week, flooding the hard-hit coastal towns and making it even harder for search-and-rescue teams and aid organisations to reach those in need.

Access to clean water for drinking and sanitation is a problem as the quake damaged thousands of water cisterns. Our water and sanitation experts are en route to assess the situation and plan a response. But they face a race against the clock as there is a growing risk of infectious diseases, including acute respiratory infection, diarrheal diseases and malaria.

Several local hospitals were damaged by the quake and are struggling to treat the huge numbers of injured people who arrived. They don’t have the capacity to deal with further large influxes of sick people, particularly as Covid-19 remains a threat and fewer than 1% of the population is vaccinated against it.

RS58463__lpr Denise Louis, 42, injured by the recent magnitude 7.2 earthquake, is being treated at the General Hospital of Cayes, Haiti. Source: Lucien Junior Telasmond/Concern Worldwide

Complicating matters, the emergency operation is running against a backdrop of insecurity. Criminal gangs control the main routes between Port-au-Prince and the affected region. The United Nations has negotiated with them to secure safe passage for humanitarian convoys. But security remains a constant issue for aid workers.

The desperation of vulnerable communities impacted by the quake is adding to the security threat. In recent days, fear by communities that they may not get the aid they need has boiled over into frustration, with a number of aid trucks being stopped and looted. This latest security threat is just another element to be factored in when managing this challenging emergency response.

One thing can be said: the Haitian people are remarkably resilient. In recent years alone, they coped with the horrendous earthquake in 2010 which killed over 200,000 people, repeated storms and hurricanes, and the political turmoil which followed the assassination of their president, Jovenel Moise, last month.

They will overcome this latest disaster and rebuild in the wake of this earthquake also, with the support of organisations such as Concern.

Makayla Palazzo is part of Concern Worldwide US’s policy and advocacy team. She has been deployed to Haiti to support Concern’s emergency response in the wake of the earthquake. To support Concern’s Haiti Earthquake Emergency Appeal click here.

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Makayla Palazzo

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