February 18, 2011

Hope and help for Haiti: Catholic Relief Services administrator outlines emergency assistance for Haitians

Robert Barnell of Indianapolis, an archdiocesan Refugee Resettlement Program staff member, talks with children at a parish school in Haiti last May. (Submitted photo)

Robert Barnell of Indianapolis, an archdiocesan Refugee Resettlement Program staff member, talks with children at a parish school in Haiti last May. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Wyand

First came the devastating earthquake, a massive underground wave of destruction on Jan. 12, 2010, that leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in seconds.

The 7.0-magnitude quake crushed 85 percent of the buildings in the capital city and trapped people under tons of debris, killing more than 230,000 Haitians, injuring thousands more and leaving 1.5 million residents homeless.

Next came the cholera epidemic in October. The water-borne disease claimed at least 3,700 lives and sickened another 150,000 Haitians in recent months.

On Nov. 5, Hurricane Tomas pounded across western Haiti with gale-force winds, torrential rains and flooding, killing six people and making life even more difficult for 1 million homeless Haitians still living in overcrowded tent cities.

Through it all, violence against women escalated into rape despite security patrols in hastily constructed resettlement camps.

Some of the displaced Port-au-Prince residents fled to outlying areas, which have no resources to care for them.

One tragedy after another in 2010 imperiled the health and safety of impoverished Haitians, who continue to struggle with daily needs in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Longtime Catholic Relief Services administrator William Canny of Baltimore, the director of emergency relief services and former country representative in Haiti, was in charge of the CRS humanitarian response in Port-au-Prince for several months after the earthquake.

He discussed the troubled history of Haiti and ongoing relief efforts during a Jan. 13 program for the Sen. Richard G. Lugar Global Studies Speaker Series at Marian University in Indianapolis.

Catholic Relief Services staff members, representatives of other humanitarian aid groups, and peacekeeping troops from the U.S. and other countries are helping the beleaguered Haitian people rebuild their lives amidst the rubble in Port-au-Prince and overcrowding in outlying areas.

Survivors were pulled from the wreckage of flattened buildings for days and even weeks after the earthquake, Canny said, and many hundreds of people suffered crushed limbs treatable only by amputation. Families were separated when relatives were treated for injuries.

The faith-filled and loving Haitian people put their trust in God and the doctors, he said, and demonstrated remarkable courage in the face of tragedy.

“They are cash poor,” Canny explained, “but rich in spirit and faith.”

Haiti’s recent political history has compounded the poverty, he said, and fragmented foreign interventions have further complicated the Haitians’ plight.

“Haiti seems incapable of escaping its slave beginnings,” he said. “The mentality of dominance that pervaded such an endeavor still persists in many quarters.”

In recent years, more than 300,000 children from poor families have been given up by their parents, Canny said, who sent them to live with and work for families that can afford to feed them in a child slavery system known as “restavek.”

“In some cases, these children do get an education,” he explained, “but in most instances they do not.”

High food prices led to rioting in 2008, Canny said, and widespread violence fueled a period of economic insecurity and political upheaval despite the presence of 9,000 U.S. peace-keeping troops.

“A small percentage—perhaps 4 or 5 percent of the population—owns an estimated 85 percent of the wealth,” he said. “… Signs of stability began to resurface in about 2009 while I was there. In sectors of education and in health particularly, we began to see progress.”

Then, a few months later, the quake decimated Haiti’s capital city.

“I have seen and participated in major emergency [relief efforts] around the world,” Canny said. “… What happened in this earthquake is like no other disaster [that] I and other [humanitarian aid workers] have ever experienced.”

The earthquake lasted less than a minute, he explained, but left a wide swath of destruction that will take years to repair.

“A natural disaster of this scale in a city is unusual,” Canny said. “The quake destroyed infrastructure, and killed many key government, United Nations, religious and civil society leaders. The archbishop [Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince] was among those killed in the earthquake. … This severely disrupted the normal functioning of the disaster response mechanisms of the government and of local civil society.”

The Haitian people and government face many daunting challenges on their road to recovery, he explained. “It has been aptly noted that Haiti fared much more poorly than other cities after earthquakes of similar magnitude, notably Chile. … The earthquake was made even more deadly because of rapid urbanization [in Port-au-Prince] since the early 1980s.”

The population in the capital city was about 730,000 people in 1980, Canny said, but a swine flu outbreak and government-ordered killing of pigs in the late 1970s caused Haitian farmers to flee to cities.

In 2008, the population of Port-au-Prince had grown to 3 million residents. Most of these 2 million people ended up living in tin or concrete shelters without access to water, sanitation or electricity.

“The government lost 27 of its 28 ministry buildings [in the earthquake] and was largely dysfunctional at first,” Canny said. “Security was tenuous as the U.N. peacekeepers themselves were stunned, having lost a number of staff and troops. They were immobilized by their own losses. … Forty thousand prisoners escaped from prisons.”

About 7,000 U.S. troops sent to Port-au-Prince secured the airport, refurbished the ports and provided critical security for humanitarian workers in the first months after the quake, he said, but access to water, food, sanitation, shelter and health care is very limited.

Supplying emergency food rations and water to the people were priorities, he said, followed by attempts to remove rubble, clear land, establish large resettlement camps and build transitional shelters.

“Only about 5 percent of the rubble has been removed,” Canny said, “and [aid workers] are unable to move people to well-organized camps due to an inability to secure land. … The recovery has been hampered in recent months due to an outbreak of cholera, which was unseen in Haiti for 50 years. … This disease is very treatable. … But so far, this [treatment] effort has been quasi-successful.”

After the quake, “the world responded with one of its most generous outpourings of aid in recent history,” he said. “CRS received about $192 million for Haiti, including about $80 million from special collections in Catholic churches.

“About $33 million of that has been set aside by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to rebuild churches, schools and parish centers in Port-au-Prince,” Canny explained. “We had spent about $70 million of the remaining funds by the end of December—about 44 percent of the funds that we received in the first year—and anticipate spending about $200 million over a five-year period.”

More than 1 million people received food from CRS, he said, and 100,000 children still get monthly food rations at 370 schools, orphanages and child care centers. Emergency shelter materials were provided for 250,000 people, and 2,000 transitional shelters have been constructed.

In collaboration with the University of Maryland Trauma Center, CRS performed more than 1,000 emergency operations and 70,000 outpatient procedures, he said. CRS also is helping to rebuild St. Francois de Sales Hospital in Port-au-Prince.

Education and jobs are the keys to Haiti’s future, Canny said, and CRS has created short-term employment opportunities for 10,000 people that include clearing rubble.

CRS needs to remain in Haiti for a long time to oversee the construction of Catholic churches and schools, Canny explained, and partnerships with the Church, civil society and government must include Haitians.

The Church continues to create conditions which promote the work of God, he said, “that will help Haiti and its courageous people rise from the rubble and overcome the current difficulties.” †

(Related story: Young adults make a difference in Haiti during mission trips)

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