It seems that once every few years or so there is a natural disaster somewhere in the world that has so much of an impact that it stays in the global headlines for weeks afterwards and is remembered for generations. In 2004 there was the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in 2005 there was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and in 2010 there was the Haiti earthquake. On January 12th 2010 the already desperately poor and ravaged city of Port-au-Prince was brought to its knees by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The best estimate of the death toll is considered 159,000, a figure provided by the University of Michigan. Over three million people were affected – around a third of the population of the country – and the city became a living hell. Already the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti was the least well equipped country on the continent to cope with such a disaster and the consequences were horrendous.
There was an instant global response to the earthquake but a devastated infrastructure, including destroyed hospitals, meant that it was all but impossible to provide immediate help to those who needed it. The already atrocious crime rates in the city shot up as people did whatever they could to survive. Disease became widespread and the UN, global aid agencies and rescue organisations struggled to make an impact. Tent cities were set up throughout Port-au-Prince to house the 1.5 million displaced and these became notorious for rape and other violent crimes, not to mention squalid environments which gave disease ample opportunity to proliferate.
I first visited the city back in September 2011 and, although it was 21 months after the quake, the effects were still all too apparent. Upon arrival I saw that the airport terminal building had a huge gaping crack all along one outer wall. The arrival process was the epitome of chaos and when I arrived out on the streets I have to admit I was pretty scared as all and sundry approached me. I’d obviously read up about the tent cities and the dangers elsewhere in Port-au-Prince and there were tents opposite the airport building only metres away. I couldn’t wait to get to my hotel, high in the hills above the city in the affluent suburb of Pétionville. The 11 km journey from the airport to Pétionville was a not straightforward to say the least. Many of the buildings were still piles of rubble and most of the streets were in such a state of decrepitude that moving around the city was a real challenge to say the least.
Well, two years on from that first visit I find myself back in Haiti. The changes were immediate to see upon arrival as the disembarking passengers were whisked through a repaired terminal building with air conditioning and orderly immigration and customs queues. After exiting the building there were waiting taxis with honest drivers, and everything seemed so much calmer and organised than before. The journey into Pétionville was still no different though, with the quickest route being through steep hilly back streets. The road conditions in Port-au-Prince are, without a doubt, the worst urban roads I’ve seen around the world. A 4×4 is a must in this place.
Port-au-Prince as a whole still has huge problems and many of those living in the tent cities have yet to be rehoused. In Pétionville, however, life is quite different to the rest of the city and this time I felt safe enough to walk around the streets rather than have a car and driver. The vast majority of expats and foreign workers live in the suburb which has commanding views over the rest of the city. With bougainvillea adorning every other property front and seen down every side street there is definitely an air of a quaint French village to some parts. French and Haitian Creole are the official languages of Haiti but with so many aid workers and UN staff many of the locals are now fluent in English, which helps me quite a bit! So, considering how poor the country is one might be surprised at what you can buy here. Certainly after visiting Cuba this was always going to feel like Christmas at the supermarket but you really can get almost everything here, certainly in terms of food. One of the main foreign supermarkets, the Caribbean Supermarket, collapsed during the earthquake and was still out of action on my last visit but it is now open again. Walking inside is quite surreal as it looks just like any supermarket in America, and sells all of the same goods.
One of the reasons, of course, that there is such a wide choice of goods is the sheer number of foreign workers in the city. Even before the earthquake there was a large UN population but the influx of foreigners since January 2010 meant a greater demand for all things imported and Western. The rebuilding efforts are still on-going and the presence of expats and foreign workers has not dwindled. There are dozens of fancy French restaurants here in Pétionville and to the outsider this may seem strange, but they manage to stay in business despite the reputation of the country.
I have to say it has been pleasing to see the small steps made since my last visit to the city but it can’t be forgotten that it is still a city with huge problems, certainly outside of Pétionville. Since the quake there has been quite a bit of animosity towards the UN who have been accused of introducing cholera and involved in other various scandals but they are here to stay and the efforts to help haul the country back to its feet continue.