By Stefanie Eschenbacher
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Every morning as the sun rises over the dusty, overgrown ruins of the Haitian capital’s iconic cathedral, Paul Christandro, who lived nearby all his life, thinks about the day ten years ago when he watched it come down, killing his friends.
On Jan. 12, 2010, the impoverished island nation was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless. It lasted just 35 seconds, but its scars are still visible.
International organizations pledged billions of dollars in aid as the scale of the disaster became obvious, though with Christandro and many others still in temporary housing its use has come under intense scrutiny.
Bad governance, excessive bureaucracy, waste and inflated contracts that were given mostly to foreign companies have been blamed for the lack of progress, which was hampered further by corruption and political power struggles.
“Every day when I get up, I think about it,” said the 23-year-old Christandro under the scorching Caribbean sun in the capital Port-au-Prince.
The panicked screams of people buried under the rubble remain as ingrained in his memory as the silent facial expressions of those killed, he said.
“I think about my friends and wonder what I should do with my life,” said Christandro, an electrician who, like so many in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, tries to make ends meet working ad-hoc jobs or scavenging.
Estimates of the number of dead vary widely, from below 100,000 to as high as the government’s 316,000. There is also no consensus over how much aid Haiti actually received – or what constitutes aid – but most experts put it at more than $10 billion.
Outside the cathedral, often called Haiti’s Notre Dame for its impressive architecture and meticulous detail, he shares a mattress and a roof made from thin plastic sheets with friends who lost their homes and belongings.
‘A NEW SETTLEMENT’
Others left the chaos of the capital to start over. In Canaan, a one-hour motor bike ride away, more than 300,000 people settled on what was once a pristine hillside. There, construction work is ubiquitous.
“The earthquake has given us a new settlement,” President Jovenel Moise told Reuters in an interview. He called for better collaboration between aid donors and recipients. The Haitian government received only a fraction of the aid.
Among the many new arrivals to the hillside settlement is the Louis family, who built a home from wood panels and a tin roof. Now, they are working on a concrete construction. Daughter Christelle Louis was seven years old when their house collapsed as she was doing her homework.
“I didn’t understand what was happening. It was the first time I felt an earthquake, and my leg was injured,” she said. The high school student, who dreams of becoming a doctor, said Canaan offered her family a fresh start.
In Haiti, a country that was extremely poor even before the earthquake, nearly 60% of the population survives on less than $2.40 a day. Due to a combination of weather, geography and sub-standard construction, Haiti is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, which have eroded progress.
Moise, who became president in 2017, said he was unsure how aid money had been spent. “We don’t have much to show for it.”
In Camp Karade near Port-au-Prince, which was first set up as an emergency shelter, there is now electricity in many makeshift houses and public access to clean water via tanks from which residents can fill canisters.
Hip hop and Creole rhythms blasted from giant speakers and goats ambled around trash heaps piling up between temporary constructions that have morphed into seemingly permanent housing.
Eliese Desca, 66, one of many Haitians who lost their homes, said she had little hope that things would change for the better. “Our lives revolve around finding something to eat,” she said.
Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research who specializes in Haiti, said that while the total amount of promised foreign aid was large, little trickled down to those on the ground.
The money helped to save lives but did not achieve the overall transformation many sought, Johnston said.
“The aid system is broken,” he said. “At least there is a recognition that it has been a failure.”
(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher in Port-au-Prince; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Bill Berkrot)