PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti’s leaders can point to progress since a powerful earthquake devastated the country but just surviving the first weeks’ chaos, hunger and overwhelming loss may be the easiest part of a long recovery.
Since the January 12 catastrophe killed up to 200,000 people and left around 1 million homeless in the nation of 9 million, authorities and aid workers have cleared tens of thousands of bodies from the rubble, provided water supplies for makeshift refugee camps and developed a system of food distribution.
Some police are back in the streets, schools in unaffected areas will open on Monday, communications are working and some businesses have reopened their doors.
“On the 13th of January, we woke up without telephones, with thousands of dead on the streets, and today telephones are working, there are no more bodies in the streets. We have collected more than 150,000, but there are still bodies under the rubble and we’ll see how we can get them,” President Rene Preval told Reuters this week.
“Gas stations are working normally, commercial activities have resumed ... A lot of progress has been made.”
But Haiti faces massive hurdles ahead, and it was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation before the quake, grappling with widespread hunger and illiteracy, weak infrastructure, corruption and decades of political turmoil.
The government, with international assistance, must provide long-term shelter, food supplies, healthcare and sanitation for the legions left homeless, and do so in the few months before the hurricane season -- and its risks of deadly winds and flooding -- hits its stride in July.
Security is one of the biggest challenges. The earthquake weakened Haiti’s security forces, triggered looting and left many people more vulnerable than ever to criminal gangs in the capital. The post-quake exodus of residents to the countryside could also contribute to the spread of urban problems.
“While the international community begins the long road to coordination and collaboration of assistance, daily life in Haiti will require a secure and stable environment if the tasks of rebuilding the nation are to happen,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, a former adviser to the U.N. mission in Haiti and now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“If ordinary Haitians again feel they cannot return to some level of normalcy because of increasing crime, or looting, then we may see a much longer deployment of U.S. forces and those of other friendly states augmenting U.N. forces in the short run.”
If Haiti is unable to guarantee security or prevent corrupt officials from stealing or misusing aid, foreign donors whose help will be needed for years could quickly lose interest in bankrolling ambitious recovery efforts.
The capital, dubbed the Republic of Port-au-Prince because so much of the country’s life was centered there, is largely destroyed.
Money has poured in for the recovery effort, but rebuilding will require billions of dollars, few of the lost businesses were insured, and the disaster has shown that the shoddy building standards of the past are not good enough in a city that sits on an earthquake faultline.
Preval says Haiti must decentralize by having businesses -- and their workers -- set up outside the capital city, which experts said was home to more than 2 million people before the earthquake and had an infrastructure suited for just 200,000.
He also wants to continue rural infrastructure projects that had begun before the disaster. Experts agree that Haiti’s recovery program cannot focus exclusively on the capital.
“A big win for Haiti would be to ensure that finally citizens move away from the Republic of Port au Prince and move toward building a decentralized nation with adequate infrastructure, thus creating more jobs for people as the roads are repaired,” Forman said.
Schools will reopen in areas unaffected by the earthquake on February 1, and authorities will also begin to assess what is left of schools in the areas that were hit. Most schools in Port-au-Prince were reduced to rubble.
As with so many of the challenges ahead, Haiti’s education system was struggling even before the catastrophe. The illiteracy rate is estimated at just under 50 percent and most students receive only basic education.
Editing by Kieran Murray