PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – In the month since the worst disaster in Haitian history, an enormous international aid effort has not provided the people of Marassa 14 with the food, shelter and security they need. So they built a new community from scratch.
Cardboard street signs mark the rows of makeshift plastic tents where more than 2,500 people sleep in the dirt. Handwritten ID cards stamped by a security committee show who belongs, and women serve cheap fried plantains and breadfruit for families struggling to feed their children.
One month after 40 seconds of terrifying shaking killed more than 200,000 of their relatives and neighbors and leveled most of their capital, Haiti’s endlessly resilient people are struggling to recreate their lives.
Food has yet to reach all of the 3 million people who need it. Infrastructure problems and supply backlogs continue to hamper an international aid effort that has drawn $537 million from the United States alone. Schools remain closed. And on Thursday morning, in a taste of the new horrors the impending rainy season promises to bring, an early morning downpour muddied the dirt in which 1.2 million people have pitched makeshift camp.
Downtown, hundreds of Haitians marched Thursday from the destroyed National Palace to the temporary government headquarters demanding the resignation of President Rene Preval, who has been largely out of sight since the catastrophe. He appeared Wednesday to bicker publicly with his own communications minister over the death toll.
Amid the chaos and unmet needs, there are obvious signs of progress: The United Nations, itself devastated by the quake, has established a tent-and-trailer city on the airport grounds to coordinate the efforts of 900 aid agencies who finally appear to be overcoming huge problems with communications, transportation and infrastructure.
Cell phone coverage has vastly improved. Gas stations have reopened — though that has also meant traffic is back to its normal, intolerable state. Massive amounts of rubble are still everywhere — loaded into dump trucks, the convoy would stretch from Port-au-Prince to Moscow, officials said — but at least it has been pushed to the side of the road.
And while handwritten signs still plead for foreign help, opportunistic vendors are back on the streets, selling miniature American flags as soldiers’ wide desert-camouflage Humvees roll by. The once ubiquitous dead, and their overpowering smell, have largely been carried away.
But even though top foreign and Haitian officials say immediate needs are being met, in villages like Marassa — a district whose name means “twins” in Creole — children are going unfed and families are competing for disgraceful shelter they know will not hold up for long.
In such communities, people are looking out for themselves.
In Marassa, people have made their homes in a dry riverbed that constantly floods in the rainy season. Before dawn Thursday, a surprise downpour soaked everyone’s few belongings, rendered their cooking charcoal unusable and coated their beds in mud.
“We’re living in a hole,” said Dieusin St. Vil, a 46-year-old tailor who heads the new neighborhood’s security committee. “We heard on the radio that the government was supposed to build tent cities around here, but they haven’t come by.”
That’s because, unbeknownst to the people of Marassa, those plans have changed. On Wednesday, with just 49,000 of a requested 200,000 tents provided, officials announced that deliveries will stop. Foreign governments, aid groups and Haitian officials have decided that tents take up too much space and will not last long enough.
“Tents are great, they’re a lot better than nothing, but they basically impede the process of economic development and reconstruction,” said Lewis Lucke, the U.S. Special Coordinator for Relief and Reconstruction.
Instead, 250,000 families will get one sheet of plastic each between now and May 1, and will later receive temporary, earthquake-resistant structures of metal and wood. If those numbers hold up, they will help about 60 percent of the population in need.
In the meantime, there’s not enough space, even in the riverbed that is Marassa — and the self-appointed leaders decided to split their sprawling community into two camps.
In the western half, members of St. Vil’s security committee patrol with sticks and make sure residents produce ID tickets that match numbers written in no obvious order on their tents.
An abandoned grandmother named Dieudone Bernard kept getting her tarps stolen, so the security committee told her to move into the hollowed-out wooden trailer of a junked tap-tap, as Haiti’s colorful buses are known.
Since she can’t get to one of the 16 fixed U.N. food distribution sites, the 87-year-old woman eats only if relatives bring her rice or a neighbor snags a high-energy biscuit from a handout meant for children.
Even when food aid does arrive in the village — as did 2,000 hot meals of rice and beans from a Dominican Republic government agency Thursday afternoon — those without the right connections risk not getting any.
“Even if the government says they are going to help everyone, everyone isn’t going to get help,” said the Rev. Moise Farfan, who holds prayer meetings amid the tents of Marassa every night because his church collapsed in the earthquake.
Nearby, an earthquake widow sold fried bits of potato, breadfruit and plantain from her tent, charging whatever her neighbors had in their pockets.
St. Vil appeared with a scowl, furious that it would keep them from receiving food.
“The journalists are blocking the aid!” he bellowed as a heated argument broke out among residents.
His concerns are not entirely unfounded. When pleading for aid it is much easier to speak in absolutes than to explain the much more complex reality: There is food in Haiti, but especially following the earthquake it has grown increasingly expensive and hard to get.
The price of heavily subsidized imported rice — already at levels that caused rioting in April 2008 — has shot up 25 percent since the earthquake to $3.71 a 2.7-kilo (6-pound) bag, according to USAID. Corn is up more than 25 percent, wheat increased by half. Charcoal, needed for cooking, has shot up 17 percent.
With no jobs or homes, and nowhere to go, help from others — and each other — means everything.
“The conditions here are no good, but being dead is even worse,” said Johnny Joseph, a 48-year-old father of six. “As long as you’re living, you might have a friend who’s alive too.