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Haiti still wobbles, but many work to help it 'rise and stand'

People are still homeless, children still without schools

Published: Tuesday, June 1 2010 1:00 a.m. MDT

A man stands on the remaining portions of a collapsed roof as he works to to demolish the building in Carrefour.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Amid the heaps of crumbled concrete and muck of the rainy season, the grimy city streets of Port-au-Prince sport a splash of fresh color.

Uniformed schoolchildren — boys in neatly pressed pants and checkered shirts, girls in pleated skirts and plaid blouses of every hue — make their way in and around the rubble each morning and afternoon.

Volunteer cleanup crews wearing matching T-shirts also pick and shovel their way through the mounds of cinder-block chunks and dust that used to be houses and shops. Religious groups sponsor many of those programs. Workers in one organized by the Haitian government wear bright yellow shirts with the Creole phrase "Nun Leve Kanpe!" on the back. "Rise and Stand!"

Haiti appears to be slowly getting on its feet, but it remains wobbly more than four months after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. Some fear the impending rainy season could knock it down again.

"It is very hard, because Haiti is a poor country," said Arthur Pappilon, adviser to the Haitian minister of justice and a relative of a Taylorsville couple visiting family in the island nation this week. "There is no way Haiti can do everything by itself."

At the same time, Pappilon said relief and redevelopment organizations should come into the country telling Haitians what would be best for them.

"You have to talk to Haitians to find out exactly what they need. You have to ask me, 'How do you want me to help you?' Haitians are poor, but you have to respect my dignity as a Haitian."

While schools are in session and shops are open, it's not uncommon to see them conduct business outside the shell of a broken building. Many Haitians still lack regular meals and access to clean water. Electricity is spotty at best.

Rubble heaped as high as traffic signs lines busy thoroughfares and neighborhood alleys in and around Port-au-Prince. The piles grow every day with seemingly little being hauled away. Broken streets with no immediate prospect for repair have turned into mud holes that jam traffic for hours.

Still, Pappilon, who lived in New York and Miami for 25 years, has hope.

"By nature, I am very optimistic," he said. "That's why I am in the fight for survival."

Fighting for survival is what many Haitians do every day.

A woman with four daughters in one tent city said she doesn't know how long she will live in her sheet-covered shelter, which on this day is wet from an overnight downpour. She manages to scrape up some beans and rice, but some days, the family goes hungry.

Aristil Amos, a 21-year-old college student, can't go home and can't go to school because both were knocked down in the quake. He lives in a tent and has little to occupy his time.

"I can say I am doing nothing," he said.

Haitians seem to have adjusted to post-earthquake impediments and inconveniences to everyday living while they wait for the government or humanitarian organizations to rebuild, an effort that by some estimates could take decades to a generation.

"We have to adapt to the situation. It's very hard," said another college student, Stevenson Laurent. "It's not easy to find work."

Camps housing thousands of people in rusted corrugated mental shanties, tents and tarp stamped with USAID or Samaritan's Purse appear more permanent than temporary. Some settlements are divided into blocks with numbers spray-painted on the structures as crude addresses. Merchants sell dried fish or cook charcoal pack into muddy paths between shacks, forming makeshift markets.

Vendors catering to homeless people have popped up on the streets. Some hawk long, narrow tree trunks that can be cut into tent poles. Mattresses, too, are now bunched between the usual commodities.

Some camps have medical clinics in large tents with exam rooms where, five days a week, doctors like Katia Deteriere treat people for high blood pressure, respiratory and urinary infections and pain. She sees about a dozen patients a day, but she said the number swells to 60 or 70 on Fridays.

In the countryside filled with towering palms and plentiful mango trees southwest of Port-au-Prince, where relief supplies never arrived, people still drink water from contaminated streams, said Pierre Louis Roderigue, pastor of a Christian school 30 miles southwest of the capital city. He worries typhoid will follow.

And with the rainy season now at hand, the prospect of more sickness and destruction looms.

"Hurricanes are going to be on this poor country," said William Burke, a teacher at the school. "This is very, very, very bad."

Just in the past week, he said, some houses in the area collapsed in a downpour.

Concrete and cinder block are the building materials of choice in Haiti, mostly because they are available, but also because they withstand hurricanes. Earthquakes were not something Haitians thought much about before Jan. 12.

Those children in their brightly colored uniforms practiced hurricane drills, where they were taught to hunker down inside. Some Haitians actually ran inside to their deaths when the ground started shaking, because that's what they were taught to do in a tropical storm.

"The past generation didn't leave anything for us," Pappilon said, noting the last major earthquake in Haiti occurred in 1842. "I think the next generation will know how to behave."

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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