By Father Bill Pomerleau
Haitian-American earthquake survivor Marc-Donald Leon-fils of Springfield returned to his homeland March 30, 2010 to check on family and friends, and to see how he can help more generally.
The good news is that his immediate family is safe and sound.
The bad news is that many, many others are barely hanging on.
“My sister’s house in (Port-au-Prince suburb) Carrefour was completely destroyed. But we had a rental home that was not too badly damaged. We were able to buy some wood to seal it up. I stayed there,” he told me in a telephone interview a few hours after his arrival in the Haitian capital.
Leon-fils, a parishioner of Mary, Mother of Hope Parish in East Springfield, narrowly escaped death Jan. 12 when a 7.0 earthquake flattened nearly every building in his sister’s neighborhood. Luckily, he was in the street when the quake occurred; otherwise, he would be among the estimated 250,000 Haitians crushed by falling debris when the quake hit.
My friend reports that over nearly three months after the earthquake, living conditions have barely improved in Carrefour and other parts of the Port-au-Prince region.
I asked Leon-fils about a recently announced promise that if homeowners push debris from their demolished homes onto the street, it would be removed by government trucks. Driving through Port-au-Prince, he saw no signs that the program has actually begun.
“You see groups of Haitians in the neighborhoods putting debris in their own dump trucks with shovels and bare hands, but the government is not involved.”
Most of the more than one million people still in Port-au-Prince are living in tents or improvised shelters made with pieces of plastic sheeting, Leon-fils reports.
“There are mudslides everywhere, and the (open air storm) drains are all blocked.
“There is trash everywhere. I’ve seen children rummaging through it in search of food.”
In the days following the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of survivors spontaneously left the overcrowded Haitian capital for the countryside where they have family members and friends. At first, the government and outside aid agencies encouraged this exodus, hoping a reversal of the decades-long urban migration Port-au-Prince would make rebuilding the capital city more manageable.
The government even provided free bus rides to anyone willing to leave Port-au-Prince.
But in recent weeks, that trend has reversed itself.
It talked to someone from Les Cayes,” Leon-fils told me, referring to a town southwest of Port-au-Prince with relatively less earthquake damage.
“I asked him why he came back here to live in a tent. He said he had no food in Les Cayes. At least here he can beg and have a chance of getting something to eat.”
On March 31, Leon-fils arrived in Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, a town two hours north of Port-au-Prince in Artibonite Province, historically Haiti’s agricultural breadbasket.
But Petite Rivière, once the regional capital of an area that exported rice and other crops to the rest of Haiti and beyond, is no longer a Caribbean version of Iowa.
The town is now filled with squatters who were dropped off by bus from Port-au-Prince, even though they have no ties to the region.
“They had nowhere to go. They were basically dumped here,” Leon-fils told me by phone on the morning of March 31.
Petite Rivière was untouched by the Jan. 12, but an aftershock a few days later cracked some walls in the town. Uncertain about the safety of their homes, most residents sleep outside each night.
“The mayor is trying to get some government inspectors up here to evaluate the buildings, but so far, there’s no sign of them,” Leon-fils reports.
Petite Rivière is also the scene of disaster profiteering, he reports. The government has distributed food ration cards which entitle each family to 1 bag of rice, 1 bag of corn meal some beans and a liter of cooking oil. The ration is the same, regardless of family size.
But residents are charged 150 Haitian dollars (about $10 U.S.) for the ration cards, a sizable amount in a nation where many people survive on little more than one U.S. dollar a day.
Already, unscrupulous merchants are buying ration cards, then reselling rice at 120 Haitian dollars a bag to hungry residents.
“It’s hard to tell if its worse here or in Port-au-Prince. Yesterday, I watched people wait in line for five hours in Carrefour for a food distribution. Finally, they came and told me there would be no food that day because the truck delivering it had run out of gas.”
Later on Wednesday, March 31, Marc-Donald Leon-fils will travel to Savanne à Roches, a town up the Artibonite River valley. He will report to me on how rural Haitians are celebrating the Easter Triduum in their troubled country.