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David Weiss

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Eighteen Months After the Earthquake: A Return to Haiti

Posted: 08/04/11 12:55 PM ET

In April 2010, I visited Haiti and saw the destruction wreaked upon the people of this already desperately poor nation by the earthquake. I was deeply saddened to see how much the Haitian people had lost and was extremely concerned about the amount of effort it would take to rebuild what was left of the country. In late June of this year, 14 months later, I returned and was astonished by the progress that I saw.

There remains a monumental amount of work to do on the road to recovery and to rebuilding a country that is better than the one ravaged by the earthquake. But it is important to understand that despite all the oft-reported problems, the contrast between now and three months after the earthquake is night and day.

I bring a thirty-year perspective on Haiti. I first came to know Haiti as a Foreign Service Officer from 1981 - 83. I returned in 2007 and saw the economic decline that had taken place in the intervening decades of disorder. Through my association with CHF International, I knew about the gradual, but very real improvement in the years just prior to the earthquake. The vast amount that has been achieved since the destruction of January 2010 -- and the best of it achieved in cooperation with the Haitian people -- is deeply impressive.

One of the first contrasts that one notices is in the roads. In April 2010, they were gridlocked with the SUVs of virtually every known, and many unknown, relief agencies and military supply vehicles which responded to the earthquake's aftermath. Along the sides of the roads and spilling into the streets was tons of debris from buildings shaken to disintegration by the brutal seconds of the quake. Now, while the roads are as congested as one might expect for a busy, densely populated city, the number of aid agencies and the military presence is much reduced. Rubble removal has also been effective: where there were pancaked buildings and homes that had become ruins, now many of these lots have been cleared, or transitional shelters built in their stead.

The visible signs of economic activity are everywhere: everything on sale at the side of the road, from vegetables and meats to flip-flops and art work, to shampoo and cell phones. In some areas, traffic congestion has been alleviated by new markets that have been built to give merchants better conditions to sell their wares away from oncoming traffic. The small stores that represent hair salons, the lottery, electronics and more are brightly colored and busy -- all signs that one would hope and expect to see in a bustling city of 3 million people.

There are still many displaced people in camps -- the so-called "tent cities" -- but they are not as prevalent as they once were. Some that I had seen on my previous trip had completely disappeared, others had been decongested. Complementing this were the many transitional shelters in neighborhoods to where the camp residents have returned, far safer and more conducive to family hygiene.

While one still sees medical workers, the military and tents, they are noticeably fewer, being replaced by dump trucks removing debris, concrete trucks rebuilding roads and dwellings and by shelters built to withstand future tropical storms. The economic activity is palpable, lending to a sense of a return -- or at least the beginning of a return -- to normalcy.

In my visit, I was pleased to see projects that CHF International had started before the earthquake, funded by USAID, coming to completion. One of the most notable is the market of Savane Pistache. Home to 324 vendors and with a recycling center built in partnership with UNDP, Savane Pistache is now a vibrant, colorful market built with the full input of the local community. I also saw our rubble recycling program. We use mobile rubble crushers from Red Rhino -- mini and micro-crushers that can fit in the tiniest of spaces and that are mobile enough to be used to recycle rubble on site for road repairs and other basic construction. Other programs we have been able to set in place include the Haiti Apparel Center, a program designed to reverse the decline in the Haiti garment sector by providing training for workers in the garment industry from sewing machine operators to high level executives -- the jobs needed across the whole sector.

These are all very positive signs. But these signs do not contradict reports of failures and frustrations -- they complement them and provide reason for optimism. Advances have been and must continue to be made. The donors, who have promised so much to Haiti, must not lose interest or allow bureaucratic delay to suffocate the momentum of progress. It took bold action to make a difference after the earthquake and it will take continued bold action to work in partnership with the people of Haiti to create a better future. The headlines have faded and public attention has shifted elsewhere, but Haiti must not be forgotten and the pledges and commitments must be honored.