Amikley Fontaine may be thousands of kilometres away from his family in Haiti, but his mind and heart are with the people of his home country, who are suffering again — this time from the devastation of a 7.2 earthquake that’s claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people.
Saturday’s earthquake left thousands more displaced from their homes, which are either damaged or destroyed, and their plight could soon worsen as a a tropical storm approaches, bringing with it heavy rain, flooding and landslides.
The country was still picking up the pieces from the 2010 earthquake that killed more 250,000 people when Saturday’s quake hit. The devastation came as Haiti was already undergoing political turmoil following the assassination of its president Jovenel Moïse, as well as facing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that’s had hospitals overwhelmed.
“There are no words to explain the suffering, the misery of the people at the moment … Their sorrow, their pain are as well our pain here in Canada,” said Fontaine, whose siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins are in Jeremie, one of two cities badly hit by the quake.
“Physically I am separate from them, but mentally I am with them,” he said.
‘Country has never returned to normal’
With power lines down in many areas and the internet connection spotty, Fontaine has been able to speak with his brother, but few others. He’s trying not to fear the worst but is also bracing for news that someone he knows or loves could have been hurt or killed.
“There are some of them that until now I don’t know where they are. I don’t know if they are inside a house that has collapsed,” he said. “Anytime you could receive a phone call that you’ve lost this person or that person. So it’s a not an easy situation at the moment.”
Inside Haiti, he said, there are still scenes of damage from the 2010 earthquake that look like they happened just yesterday.
Rahul Singh, executive director of GlobalMedic, led a team into Haiti two days after that quake.
“Arguably, you could say the country has never returned to normal from 2010,” he said.
But this time, with tropical storm Grace around the corner, he says, things will be different. Not only that, the main roadway in the area is overrun with armed gangs, meaning aid efforts could be hampered by the threat of robbery or worse.
“It’s absolutely catastrophic. It’s just chaos on the ground.”
Communities need to be at centre of recovery work
Aid efforts are critical now to the country’s recovery, said Fontaine, but he stresses the need for organizations to work closely with Haitian groups to make sure help gets to where it’s needed most.
Following the 2010 quake, he says, Haiti was transformed into something of an “NGO republic,” where money and resources didn’t necessarily reach the people and places where it was badly needed.
This story will disappear from the headlines. But the needs won’t.– Rahul Singh, GlobalMedic
“We ask for the generosity of Canada and that generosity has to be coordinated by the Haitian diaspora,” he said.
Stephanie Christensen, executive director of the disaster relief organization ShelterBox Canada, agrees.
“It’s really important that communities lead their own recovery. We want to hear from Haitians what they need from us in this response, what we can provide, the types of training that they’ll need and then we’ll be able to bring in the aid that is required to help these families.”
Her organization is working to mobilize a team to Haiti, which hasn’t happened since COVID-19 hit.
“It’s devastating anytime there’s a big earthquake like this but for it to be Haiti is particularly devastating,” said Christensen, noting that after the 2010 quake, there was Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which caused even more damage.
That, coupled with the political chaos and gang violence as well as the strain of the pandemic, will mean the response to Saturday’s quake will be that much more complicated.
Still, with the threat of disease, lack of access to clean water, and the possibility that more could be trapped as the ground is soaked by the coming storm, Singh says it’s important for the world not to look away from Haiti.
“This story will disappear from the headlines. But the needs won’t.”