The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2020
56 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL total collapse of houses built with unreinforced concrete. More importantly, lack of vehicular access to these areas meant that rubble had to be removed by manual laborers supplied with buckets: a spectacularly inefficient way of clearing the town. It was a monumental task just to get to the areas that had been hit, much less clear and reconstruct them. Despite the challenges, USAID/Haiti identified housing con- struction projects on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and in the north of the country (in Cap Haitien) as one method of reducing the congestion in central Port-au-Prince. The housing project in the north was part of a larger interagency employment-genera- tion effort involving the construction of a garment factory and a power station. USAID did build thousands of small housing units equipped with water, sanitation and electricity in the north, as projected. We could have done more in the greater Port-au- Prince area, but construction in Haiti is hindered by land tenure issues. As a colleague once observed: “Here, every parcel of land is owned by at least three people—all of whom have the legal documents to prove unequivocally that it is theirs.” This trans- lated into endless hurdles as we went about trying to identify land where we could construct new units. Haiti’s recovery was also complicated by the outbreak of a cholera epidemic (a disease that was previously unknown there). The epidemic was attributed to the arrival of United Nations troops who had come to the island to help with sta- bilization efforts. Some of these individuals were from parts of Asia where cholera was endemic. The Haitian firm that had been contracted to empty the latrines in the barracks where the troops were stationed had decided to dispose of the contami- nated waste by simply dumping it into the Artibonite River: the source of water for tens of thousands of Haitian households. Within weeks, the epidemic exploded within a population that did not recognize the symptoms of cholera and frequently waited too long to seek medical help. An estimated 812,000 people contracted the disease, and more than 9,400 died before the disease ran its course. The final indignity that fateful year was a hurricane. Like most residents of the West Indies, Haitians are intimately acquainted with these storms. But by late summer 2012, most Haitians had run out of their fabled resilience, and they simply hunkered down in structures that were still intact and prayed that this, too, would pass. The storm did pass, and the damage was minimal (in large part because there was not much left to damage). Much Remains to Be Done I sincerely wish I could announce that we had successfully met and overcome the challenges facing this country where people are warm and welcoming, and where art and culture flourish in an infinite number of ways. But there still remains much to do. The provision of basic government services is still highly problematic, and environmental degradation looms large as forests and mangrove swamps are decimated and topsoil erodes. Violent eruptions in the form of blockades and burning tires remain the principal way for citizens to express their anger at the country’s rulers and managers, and their frustration with the lack of available options for getting ahead. I cannot help but contrast this anger and volatility with the generous people who, during the months that I lived in my office, brought me pumpkin soup and plates of rice and beans, or deposited a ripe mango on my desk—all without being seen or seeking to be thanked. I departed Haiti in the summer of 2012 and went to West Africa to fill in as acting USAID mission director. I remember congratulating myself on the fact that I had dealt rather well with the stress engendered by my tour in Haiti. I maintained this belief until four years later, when I happened upon a video of a post-earthquake press conference where U.S. government agencies were discussing how they were handling the post- quake situation. I observed to my horror that throughout the entire 30-minute press conference, I was moving my head back and forth like a hypnotized cobra. It was at that moment that I realized I had not, in fact, gotten through the earthquake unscathed. In retrospect, this epiphany also shed light on the onset of shingles followed immediately by a rare autoimmune condition that I succumbed to 18 months after leaving Haiti. Indeed, the price of living through the earth- quake was much higher than my initial estimate. That said, understanding what had taken place also put into perspective the full measure of support that I received from colleagues who, despite their incalculable losses (families, friends, houses, basic services), reached out to me and supported me during one of the most challenging periods of my life. n Haiti’s recovery was also complicated by the outbreak of a cholera epidemic (a disease that was previously unknown there).