LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) – The tin-roofed concrete house that Erline Castel and Dieunord Ernest rented is among more than 130,000 homes damaged or destroyed by a massive earthquake that hit southern Haiti last year, killing more than 2,200 people.
In the days after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, they gathered sheets, tarps and wood and made a shelter for them and their three children. More than a year after the August 14, 2021 earthquake, they still live in the same makeshift tent as hundreds of others, and they still wonder if anyone will help them.
If recent history is any guide, few people will.
The Associated Press visited several camps around the southern coastal town of Les Cayes, which was one of the hardest-hit areas, and several times people complained that no government officials visited them despite repeated promises that they would come to help.
As the family waited for help, Ernest died of prostate cancer last year. So today, Castel is alone, fighting for her family’s survival like many struggling to start their lives over after the earthquake.
On Thursday morning, she tried to get her 9-month-old daughter to nurse. But after a year of surviving on scraps in a makeshift camp, Castel had no milk. The little girl, Wood Branan Ernest, fell asleep during her failed attempt.
“I have nothing to provide for them,” Castel said.
What’s worse, others are victimizing earthquake victims.
In a camp, friends of the owner of the property are trying to reclaim the land where the refugees have settled. The bandits have destroyed shacks, thrown stones at families and tried to set fire to the camp twice in recent months.
The camp, like several others, also quickly floods when it rains, forcing hundreds of people to flee to higher ground as they watch their belongings get soaked.
“I don’t know how long I can go on like this,” said Renel Cene, a 65-year-old man who lost four children in the earthquake and once worked in the nearby fields of vetiver, a plant whose roots produce an oil used in fine perfumes.
Families walk to get water from a well, sometimes letting the sediment settle before drinking. Many have no work. They rely on neighbors for their only meal of the day.
Those living in the camps say they have heard on the radio that local government officials have met with international leaders about the post-earthquake hardship, but question whether they will ever be helped.
“So far, it’s all been promises,” said farmer Nicolas Wilbert Ernest, 55. “I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait.”
On the anniversary of the earthquake, a group of government officials held a press conference describing the advances of the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who began leading the country shortly after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7, 2021.
The government says it has planted 400 tons of beans, cleaned 10,000 meters of canals, distributed 22,000 bags of fertilizer and donated more than 300,000 baskets full of basic goods. He provided $100 each to vulnerable people in tens of thousands of homes across the South. The state also opened a temporary bridge over the Grande-Anse River in early August.
But UNICEF warned last week that more than 250,000 children still lack access to proper schools and that most of the 1,250 destroyed or damaged schools have not been rebuilt. He noted that lack of funds and an increase in violence have delayed reconstruction.
Increasingly powerful gangs have seized control of the main road linking the capital Port-au-Prince to Haiti’s southern region, disrupting efforts to provide food, water and other basic goods to those in need.
Many organizations were forced to pay bribes to prevent employees from being kidnapped while driving south.
Cindy Cox-Roman, CEO of HelpAGE USA, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, said there is “a great feeling on the part of people that they are alone in this.”
Cassendy Charles, emergency program manager for the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Mercy Corps, estimates it could take five years for the region to fully recover from the earthquake. The organization has been forced to use boats and planes to transport supplies south, but even that is complicated because the port is located in the Cite Soleil slum, where more than 200 people are believed to have been killed recently when rival gangs fought over territory.
“The situation is volatile,” he said.
Meanwhile, double-digit inflation has deepened poverty. Marie Dadie Durvergus, a kindergarten teacher who lives with her two children in a camp, said a bag of rice that cost 750 gourdes ($6) last year now costs 4,000 gourdes ($31).
Berline Laguerre, a former street vendor who once sold used clothes, said the money she saved to buy more clothes went to feed her children. There was nothing left to send them to school or buy uniforms or books.
“And the kids are asking me, ‘Mom, when am I going to go back to school?’ My friends are saying, ‘What about me?’” she said.
On a recent morning, Laguerre was in line with others in front of tent No. 8, where Bauzile Yvenue was making sweet coffee for neighbors in need, a system that has become critical to survival.
“I can’t do this every morning, but on the days I do, I feel good about sharing coffee with my neighbors,” said the 48-year-old mother of two.
But a moment later, she said she fears her 14-year-old daughter could be raped at the camp. Rape was a common occurrence in similar camps that proliferated after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 Haitians.
Jocelin Juste became the informal manager of Camp Devirel after the last major earthquake. He and other self-appointed leaders wrote dozens of handwritten letters and visited local nonprofits to try to get the attention of government officials.
“We are doing everything we can to survive,” he said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.