In Port-au-Prince at St. Pierre parish, one of the few Catholic churches that didn’t collapse in the January 2010 earthquake which devastated this city of 3.7 million people, everyone is dressed as smartly as they can at Sunday Mass in the evening, the way people in New York did when I was a kid. People are dressed comfortably in the tropical heat—93 degrees outside today—but there are no jeans and sandals, no one, even folks who are clearly quite poor, appears careless about what they are wearing; little girls in their Sunday best are carried in church wrapped in their fathers’ arms; the Kreyòl choir sounds angelic, even if I can’t understand a word they are singing. In short it is a Sunday evening Mass as normal as it can be in Port-au-Prince, and things are indeed getting closer to what passed for normal in Port-au-Prince before the disaster that claimed perhaps 300,000 lives nearly three years ago. The street life here is as vibrant as it ever was, even more so, since so many are living doubled up with friends and family, waiting for the opportunity to return to a home of their own.
Just outside the church a large park is a green and airy break from the crush of small homes in the surrounding neighborhood. Just a few months ago, said C.R.S.’s David Alexis, the Port-au-Prince Housing Community Infrastructure Coordinator, this park had been packed with more than 5,000 living in a tent city since the earthquake. But the park’s tenant’s have finally been relocated and the park is, well, a park again. A place where young people stroll and children shout and play. Almost 360,000 still live in tent cities scattered around nearly 500 camps and informal sites. Thousands more live in transitional housing, an vast improvement over the tents, but still far from a permanent solution. The figures are down considerably from more than 1.5 million who were displaced by the earthquake, but they suggest the people of Haiti still have a long way to go to recover from the quake. In this neighborhood hundreds of clear signs of the catastrophe remain in uninhabited houses too badly damaged to be repaired but yet to be torn down, the cinder block skeletons of other homes which fell in upon themselves and their inhabitants or abject piles of crushed stone where a house once stood, still to be cleared away. Even sites that have been demoed can be marked by building materials crushed into large piles of gravel but left to lay senselessly on the rocky and dusty streets of the Haitian capital.
This week I will be attempting to learn about how far Haiti has come since the 2010 disaster, how far it must still travel and perhaps try to understand the special challenges of development and restoration in a nation founded by slaves who freed themselves and fought repeatedly to preserve their freedom, now locked in a struggle to liberate itself from crushing poverty and decades of dependence on foreign assistance. I’ll be looking for signs of hope to share with you.