After 2010, Haiti was again hit hard by an earthquake on August 14. Last week, The Philanthropist spoke with Esther Belliger, Helvetas' Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator. The interview below was originally published in German in The Philanthropist.
On Saturday, August 14, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Haiti. The quake occurred about 150 kilometers from the capital Port-au-Prince. More than 2,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. Numerous people are still missing. 7,000 are injured and more than 30,000 homeless people are in need of rapid assistance. Thousands of buildings have been destroyed. The situation is dramatic.
Where is Helvetas currently present in Haiti?
We are present in the south and southwest of the island, exactly where the earthquake had the greatest impact.
How were your own employees or facilities affected by the earthquake?
Fortunately, none of our employees were affected and our facilities did not suffer any significant damage. But our Haitian partners were very badly affected. The hospitals are completely overcrowded. The medical staff is very challenged and partly overburdened, even more than usual.
People are lining up. It is chaotic. The images sent to us by our team are very reminiscent of the situation after the 2010 earthquake, although the geographical scale is not as great and this time the capital has not been affected.
And what is the situation in the south?
The impact in the south of the island is really bad. The search for survivors continues in the rubble of the endless number of collapsed houses. And on Monday, tropical storm Grace also hit the island.
How has it changed the situation?
The storm has weakened slightly. Nevertheless, it rained cats and dogs on Monday. The storm extremely hampered the search work. Everyone had to fear that more houses would collapse or that mudslides would break loose. In the meantime, it has stopped raining.
Are your employees already onsite?
All our employees who have not yet been onsite left for the south of the island on Monday. This is also where our main area of operation is.
Can your employees travel from the capital to the south without any problems?
In recent months, it has often only been possible to get to the area via an airlift. Normally, the route through certain neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince was too dangerous. Criminal gangs controlled the road to the south. Fortunately, the Haitian government has now been able to reach an agreement with these gangs for a humanitarian corridor. Currently, goods transports can reach the south by land. This is valid for one week for the time being.
And what does it take?
The search for survivors is still ongoing. In the meantime, we have carried out an onsite assessment to determine the needs. We are planning to distribute basic necessities and ensure access to clean drinking water and decent shelter. We also plan cash transfers to the affected families.
Why do you give money?
We give money so that people can buy the food they need and so that we don't destroy a market that is still functioning.
Aid and food are still available in the country?
Because this time the market has not collapsed, the aid does not have to be brought to the island from outside.
The devastating earthquake was 11 years ago. Had Haiti already recovered somewhat from that, and how are the people dealing with the new setback?
They are not doing well. They feel abandoned. They have the feeling that this time, too, the government was not sufficiently prepared for a disaster of this magnitude. But people are helping each other.
What possibilities does Helvetas have to help the people?
As part of our work on the ground, one of Helvetas' programs focuses on disaster preparedness. This includes, among other things, the development of emergency plans: where people can go if something happens, who is in the lead, where do people meet. This applies to natural disasters in general and also helps us in the current situation.
Does COVID-19 make the situation additionally difficult?
It's interesting that at first glance COVID-19 is virtually non-existent here. Masks are few and far between. People can't afford them. Those who live in poverty do not think of buying masks. Also, no one has been vaccinated yet. And again, it hits the poorest. The local people say, what should we do about COVID-19, we have other problems.
Helvetas and Haiti
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It will continue to be necessary for Haiti to be able to count on the support of aid organizations and the international community. More than half of the population is undernourished. Helvetas has been active in Haiti for almost 40 years—particularly in the south of the island—and has a strong local network.