By Dr. Tisha Titus*
We arrived in Haiti six months to the day after the 2010 earthquake, not quite knowing what to expect the conditions in Port-au-Prince to be. Would we be safe in transit? Would the roads taking us out of the city be blocked or damaged? Were the conditions really what had been shown on the news?
Flights into the country were difficult for us, in part due to a massive influx of relief workers and other organizations, but also in part from damage to part of the airport that was in the process of being repaired.
As we walked the several blocks to the temporary parking, the lines for outbound flights were out the door and down the street. As we winded through the city, there were some small areas of damage, but massive piles of rubble were notably absent. As we continued, most of what I saw seemed striking similar to what I had seen before the earthquake – in progress construction, demolition, renovation and the occasional unfinished project. Then came the tent cities.
As we neared the outskirts of the city, the sea of white tents came into view. Definitely suboptimal living conditions, but tolerable given the circumstances and lack of other options. As we passed through, there were UN guards at the entrance to one area with a line of port-a-potties seen in the background. A few scattered faces walked through the maze of tents, mostly women and children tending to daily chores that provide some semblance of normalcy as they work to rebuild their lives. In the few seconds it took to pass the tent city, we could all see the aftermath of the quake – not so much rubble, but shattered lives of the many who had lost nearly everything.
As we talked about what we saw and made comparisons from past trips, we all settled into our seats, gearing up for the ride to the Central Plateau. Those of us, who had come previously, already knew the road “experience.” We had told the new folks in great detail about the bumpy roller coaster ride up and over the mountain. Fast moving trucks close the edge of the cliff, abrupt darting to miss potholes the size of small cars, and intermittent games of highway chicken – all part and parcel for the ride once the pavement ends.
We continued to brief the new folks on what to expect during the daily clinics and then I noticed something. I recalled that last year a short section of the road had been paved, complete with drainage and cliff barriers, but I did not recall any intersections on that stretch of road, and we had just driven through one. I started to pay better attention to the construction and also noticed what appeared to be concrete power poles lining the road. There were also diversion culverts being put in to prevent the usual road wash-out during the rainy season.
I was amazed. The drive that took us over four hours last year was only about two and a half hours this year, with an overwhelming majority of the road paved, tarred or graded and a least two or more lanes wide. There were trucks, backhoes, packers and graders for the actual road construction, but the intricate details of the roadside drains and much of the culvert work appeared to be done without the benefit of machinery. The newly transformed road and soon-to-be power poles took us right into Thomonde, where there were piles of pavers waiting to be put down for the roads there. We started each clinic trip on solid pavement, which significantly reduced our travel time…except for the day our lead truck settled into foot-deep mud. It was also our safety when the rains shut down our clinic early and we scurried like mad to get in the trucks and get out – the pavement let us know that we were on solid ground and would make it back to Thomonde without the risk of getting stuck.
I fully realize that we did not encounter the main areas of devastation in Port au Prince, but there is progress there – rubble is being removed, new buildings are going up and the street markets are plentiful. Relief workers and supplies are abundant.
But, what really impressed me was outside of the city where there are no relief workers or incoming supplies. They still till their land by oxen and hand hoes. They walk to the well every day for water. They do laundry and bathing in the local river. They build roads by hand – working as a team to accomplish a common goal. They bring electricity to improve not only their individual quality of life, but also for their children and neighbors.
* Dr. Titus is an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. This was her third trip volunteering through Project Medishare’s Community Health Program in Haiti’s Central Plateau.