TAMPA — On Jan. 12, 2010, the earth betrayed Haiti. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed an estimated quarter million people — the number could well be higher, but exact estimates are hard to come by — and left hundreds of thousands injured or homeless.
Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti was forced to rely on the international community for help in recovering from the massive earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed. Billions of dollars in donations flowed into the Caribbean country, along with thousands of people looking to help — some affiliated with other governments or non-governmental organizations, many with churches or small charities from around the world, including from Tampa Bay.
That relief effort is still ongoing. So is the work of a number of local residents who have been helping in Haiti for five years — and counting.
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Even before the earthquake, Deon Lett had been going to Haiti to distribute food, clothing and medical supplies and to minister.
“When you see poverty and the need at that level you just have to do something,” said Lett, pastor of New Destiny International Church in St. Petersburg.
Lett wasn’t in Haiti at the time of the earthquake but couldn’t shy away from the disaster and pain. He had made an enduring connection with people there, many of whom lost family and friends in the earthquake.
“Grieved in my heart, grieved in my spirit, grieved in my mind,” Lett said. “Knowing the deplorable condition that are already there, it just made life harder for those people.”
Six months after the earthquake, Lett went back, bringing with him supplies to the orphanage his church financially supports.
“It was worse than I had imagined,” Lett said. “All the government buildings collapsed. The palace collapsed .... It was a horrible time.”
He distributed supplies and ministered a message of hope in the tent cities, where thousands of people lived in squalor on a few acres of land. Raw sewage ran in rivers between the tents. “It was heartbreaking, very disturbing,” Lett said.
Lett is still helping. He returns to Haiti two or three times a year with his church and other organizations. He said he remains moved by the spirit of the Haitian people.
“They are survivors,’’ Lett said. “They have been through so much. They do have a way to survive. It’s really inspiring.”
The asistance the country has received has resulted in some noticeable improvements, Lett said. Some dirt roads are now paved, and bridges have been repaired. More wells have been dug, giving more people access to fresh water.
“The earthquake absolutely brought attention, which brought much-needed help,” Lett said. “There is a new sense of hope in Haiti. The people, I think, are seeing improvements, even though there is so much improvement that needs to be done.”
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Rob Mallan also had been to Haiti before the earthquake through mission work. A month after the earthquake, he went back to Haiti, this time bringing members of his church, Christian Family Church in Tampa.
They went to Ouanaminthe, a town bordering the Dominican Republic where Mallan’s friend, Danita Estrella Watts, has run an orphanage, Danita’s Children, since 2000.
The orphanage was teeming with new arrivals: Children from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Some had lost limbs in the earthquake.
Mallan and his team brought clean water and food and built handicap ramps.
Two years after the earthquake, Mallan’s church bought land in Ouanaminthe. They have built a wall around the property and hope to soon construct a church that also will be used as a community, education and medical training center. Last year, a well was installed on the property. Even though there isn’t a building yet, they hold church service every Sunday on the property.
Mallan, who works with other U.S. churches and organizations in Haiti, said there have been improvements in Haiti since the earthquake, although the steps are small.
“I do see improvements in some ways, not as many as I’d like,” said Mallan, who visits Haiti three to five times a year. “In some ways, it’s still the same. In other ways, there are changes.”
One change, Mallan said, is that some of the projects are being done to help the Haitian people for the long term. Along with the new orphanages, he’s seeing small schools and job-training and medical centers, he said. One of his friends is teaching Haitians how to create a farming operation.
“We’re giving them a hand up,” said Mallan, 44. “We’re teaching them to be self sustaining. You have to start somewhere. You have to reach somebody. It has a ripple effect.”
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Training that can empower Haitians to become self-sufficient is one of the most valuable things that can come out of the post-earthquake relief effort, said Diems Duverlus, founder of Compassion Network International Ministries in St. Petersburg.
“We can bring everything we have in the U.S.” said Duverlus, 38. “But if we don’t help people to build themselves, it will mean nothing to them.”
Duverlus, who was born in Haiti and now lives in St. Petersburg, wasn’t able to contact his mother after the earthquake. He went back a month after the quake and found she had survived the ordeal, but the country was in shambles.
From the plane, he could see cracks in the ground. When he landed, he saw bodies on the streets and the country smelled like death, he said.
“It was very chaotic,” Duverlus said. “You can’t measure the emotional damage.”
The desperation after the earthquake has forced the Haitian people to compromise their lives even today, Duverllus said. It now isn’t unusual to see a 12-year-old girl working as a prostitute to get money to buy food, he said.
Before the earthquake, people shared the water and rice they had with others in need. That’s not the case today, Duverlus said. People have become more selfish out of desperation, he said.
There also is still a culture of corruption that existed in Haiti for decades before the earthquake, he said.
“If you don’t grease someone’s palm, nothing is going to happen,” Duverlus said. “By the time you’ve greased someone’s palm, you don’t have nothing to give to the needy.”
Duverlus says the steps to improve the country after the earthquake have not been enough to empower the people to become a self sufficient nation.
“With the aid that has been given to Haiti, when you compare the (financial) help with what’s been done, it seems like nothing,” Duverlus said. “At this time, we have more people living on the streets five years after the earthquake than one day before the earthquake.”
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The earthquake magnified the major problems already plaguing Haiti, said University of Miami associate professor Louis Marcelin.
The international community has always assisted the desperately poor nation, but the aid has been uncoordinated and there have never been enough long-range plans to help the people, Marcelin said. He sees the relief effort as dominated by assistance by crisis, not assistance to invest in programs that can help the country prosper in the long term.
Years of unstable government leadership in Haiti has exacerbated the issue, he said.
“Haiti has become a theater where all its issues become an international issue,” Marcelin said.
The country lacks a coordinated urban plan, organization and government policy, he said. For instance, in the northeast section of Port-au-Prince, people have built one- and two-room homes with money they received from the international community or the government, Marcelin said. But they’re building homes in an area with no planning design, no water, no sanitation and no streets, he said.
“Five years after the earthquake, we cannot say that we have moved completely from disaster to recovery,” Marcelin said. “We are still at the level of recovery.”