Listen Now

A 'Lost Decade': Haiti Still Struggles To Recover 10 Years After Massive Earthquake

19 hours ago
Originally published on January 12, 2020 9:01 am

On the wind-whipped hills north of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, Berthenid Dasny holds the keys to the gated memorial erected for Haiti's earthquake victims. Thousands of bodies are buried here in a mass grave dug after a magnitude 7 earthquake shook the country on Jan. 12, 2010.

"They've forgotten about this place; it should look better than this," Dasny says as she walks past the overgrown grass, rusted metal statues and brittle brush. For the past year, she has been the memorial's groundskeeper, though she has never been paid.

"You must remember the humans buried here. They were just like us and should always be honored, not forgotten," she says. Dasny believes some of her own relatives who were never found after the quake are buried in the grave.

Dasny says of the memorial: "You must remember the humans buried here. They were just like us and should always be honored, not forgotten."
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

The earthquake's main shock lasted almost 30 seconds. A series of aftershocks soon followed. An estimated 220,000 died, though Haiti's official estimates are higher. Some 1.5 million people were displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration. About 300,000 were injured, and large parts of the country were buried under tons of twisted metal and concrete.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Donors from around the world swiftly pledged billions of dollars in aid and made promises to rebuild. But a decade on, Haitians who survived say they feel forgotten, as much of the goodwill and billions have been lost to waste, greed and corruption.

Elizabonne Casseus, 50, is trying to keep her family afloat. She lives with 17 relatives in a small shelter in Canaan, a slum north of Port-au-Prince inhabited by displaced earthquake survivors. Today, the sprawling array of concrete homes and wooden shacks is home to more than a quarter of a million people. There is no running water; there are no sewers and few roads.

Elizabonne Casseus built this shelter (left) using surplus USAID tarps she purchased. She prepares a pot of beans for the more than a dozen people who stay in this shelter.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

Aid, Casseus says, "was good for the people that got it, but not for me."

Her flimsy one-room shack is covered with a gray tarp, stamped with logos of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She bought the cover before coming to these windy hills after spending five years in a squalid tent camp near downtown Port-au-Prince. She had hoped the foreign aid would help her repair her home, destroyed in the quake.

Haiti has long been the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, and the earthquake only made things worse. In the first year after the quake, the economy contracted by more than 5 %.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Moved by the grisly images of the death and destruction, nations around the world pledged almost $10 billion to Haiti. In addition, $3 billion more was donated to worldwide charities that sent thousands of volunteers to the island. Promises were made for new roads, schools, government buildings and permanent, earthquake-proof housing. Haiti's long-troubled economy was going to be revitalized.

While millions poured into Haiti in the first two years after the quake, giving the economy a boost, signs were emerging that reconstruction wouldn't live up to those promises.

"There were so many opportunities after the earthquake that could have reduced so much poverty," says Kesner Pharel, a Haitian economist. He calls the last 10 years a "lost decade."

By 2012, millions of cubic feet of rubble still filled the streets. More than 500,000 people still lived in squalid tent camps, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Canaan is a slum north of Port-au-Prince inhabited by displaced earthquake survivors. The sprawling array of concrete homes and wooden shacks is home to more than a quarter of a million people.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

High-profile groups created to help coordinate the flow of aid money stopped operating. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, set up to streamline and provide transparency for major aid projects and co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton, had already disbanded by the fall of 2011, and less than half of the $4.6 billion pledged to projects was spent.

Victims of the 2010 earthquake moved in when the Haitian government opened Canaan (left) for settlement. Lindar Celhomme (right) looks through a hole in his plywood house in the Corail-Cesselesse settlement, one of the first places outside of Port-au-Prince where displaced earthquake survivors pitched their tents.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

A 2013 Government Accountability Office investigation found that USAID had underestimated the cost of infrastructure and housing projects, forcing it to substantially reduce the number of homes it originally planned to help build. The GAO also found that most USAID contracts went to non-Haitian companies, leaving local businesses out of any reconstruction boon.

And an NPR investigation five years after the quake found that the American Red Cross, which took in half a billion dollars from U.S. donors, had only built six permanent homes, not the 132,000 it had claimed. The Red Cross disputed NPR's reports and objected to findings of opaque bookkeeping and exorbitant overhead costs.

Economist Pharel says that on top of the botched reconstruction effort, Haiti's constant political turmoil, weak institutions and poor governance squandered international funds and goodwill. The United Nations has struggled in recent years to get donors to fulfill their aid commitments. Last year, it only met 30% of its funding goals to Haiti, according to the U.N.

Empty jugs for water sit in a corner of Berthenid Dasny's home. Outside her door sits a large pile of stone and sand that she has been gradually purchasing in hopes of someday building a new home.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

In recent months, though, citizens have been demanding more accountability from their leaders, not only for the earthquake aid but also for billions of dollars provided to Haiti from an aid program sponsored by Venezuela, known as PetroCaribe. Opponents of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse accuse him of embezzling some of the PetroCaribe funds, and they've taken to the streets demanding he resign. Moïse denies all allegations.

This fall, demonstrations turned violent, leaving 50 people dead and more than 100 injured. Schools and businesses were shut down for weeks. Critical food aid, especially outside the capital, couldn't reach much of the population as demonstrators blocked highways and roads. About a million Haitians suffer severe hunger. Human rights advocates say gangs have grown in the midst of the political turmoil.

Medical professionals and other protesters demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince in October. Moïse has been accused of embezzling aid money.
Valerie Baeriswyl / AFP via Getty Images

But many Haitians are no longer waiting for government or aid groups to build them more permanent homes. Casseus, who relocated to the sprawling slum outside Port-au-Prince, buys sand and stone whenever she has a little extra money so that one day, she can build a more permanent structure on the land she bought.

She admits it is slow going for her and her husband, a car mechanic. "Sometimes he goes out all day long and comes back with no money," she says.

Dasny, the earthquake memorial's groundskeeper, also hopes for a better place to live. For now, she has cobbled together a two-room house on the dusty hillside where she lives by the mass grave. It is made of wooden slats and corrugated tin that rattles and roars with every gust of wind.

Remy Magene Dasny, 22, sits with her mother Berthenid Dasny. Remy had to stop attending school, where she is working on an accounting degree, because of safety concerns due to the unrest in Port-au-Prince.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii for NPR

Like Casseus, she keeps a large pile of stone and sand outside her door. When she has work or sells one of her goats, she uses the money to buy stones. She breaks the rocks and adds to the piles, getting ever closer to her goal of building a new home.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


Australia has gone nearly three decades without a recession. It's an enviable economic record. But as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, the Australian wildfires are threatening key parts of the country's economy.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Normally, the campground run by Fiona Austin near the Australian city of Shoalhaven is full in January, but tourists have been ordered to evacuate the area. And with the fires still raging, she doesn't expect them to be back anytime soon.

FIONA AUSTIN: There is a lot of fear because they're being so changing and volatile. You know, people are still unsure as to whether they could flare up again.

ZARROLI: As planes carrying water to the wildfires buzz overhead, Austin tells NPR her campground is empty right now except for a few permanent residents.

AUSTIN: We're on 15 acres so - yeah. To only have a couple of tents here - here comes another plane - is very unusual for us.

ZARROLI: Australians call themselves the lucky country. The economy has been growing steadily since 1991, a remarkable run. Economist Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan says that's partly because the population has grown a lot. But, he says, the country's been fortunate in some other ways, too.

JUSTIN WOLFERS: Not only did we start the last few decades a relatively rich country and in the club of the first-world industrialized countries; we're also parked right next to Asia, which is where much of the world's growth has come from over the past few years.

ZARROLI: As China has grown, it's been hungry for the kinds of commodities Australia has a lot of, like coal, natural gas, wheat and wool. China sends more tourists to Australia than any other country. But the rampaging fires are dealing a blow to the economy.

Martin North heads the research firm Digital Finance Analytics.

MARTIN NORTH: Just the area of Australia that's now impacted is unheard of. So we are in uncertain territory.

ZARROLI: The fires have destroyed more than 1,800 homes, as well as enormous amounts of prime farmland. Even in places far from the fires, work life is being disrupted. People with respiratory problems are staying home. Hospital visits are up. And construction crews can't work. In Sydney, ferries aren't running because of poor visibility in the harbor, says Katrina Ell of Moody's Analytics.

KATRINA ELL: There was a few days late December when fire alarms were actually going off in very large buildings within the city center just because of the poor air quality.

ZARROLI: As word of these conditions spreads around the world, tourism is taking a big hit. There's even been talk of rescheduling some of the big events that draw in millions of visitors each year, like the Australian Open and the Tour Down Under bike race. Martin North says this is happening at a time when the Australian economy was already softening a bit.

NORTH: We were already looking, I think, pretty shaky. And that was before all the bushfires.

ZARROLI: China's economy has slowed lately, and Australia has felt some pain. Unemployment ticked up last year. House prices, which have been skyrocketing for a long time, have taken a hit. Katrina Ell of Moody's Analytics doesn't think Australia is headed for a recession, but it's hard to know for sure.

ELL: What's really concerning to us is that this is still relatively early in our typical bushfire season. So there's concern about how much longer this bushfire season will run for.

ZARROLI: The longer the fires last, the more damage they will do. And that means that after almost 30 years of steady growth, the lucky country could finally see its luck run out.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.