Haiti town is scene of quake disaster. It has hope in recovery

What remains of a health clinic, run by local Catholic nuns, in the town of Maniche in southwestern Haiti after the Aug. 14 earthquake.

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Earthmovers and other heavy-duty equipment move back and forth, removing fallen slabs and crumbled concrete from no longer recognizable lots, placing them into dump trucks that then drive across town, where they are deposited into mountainous piles.

As the cleanup begins from the deadly earthquake that rocked southwestern Haiti earlier this month, here in Maniche, one of the worst hit communities in the region, the mayor has a message: Whether you have the money or not, hold off on rebuilding or repairs.

He wants to avoid the re-creation of slums in his community. But he also wants to approach reconstruction with caution, in order to avoid the sort of poor engineering that could set the stage for another earthquake disaster.

“We need to have a construction plan on how the people in the city should build so that in 10 years, 20 years we don’t register the same kind of devastation like this,” Mayor Jean David Brinard said. “We need to see how we can reduce the consequences that we are observing here today, because there will always be earthquakes.”

Located about an hour’s drive outside of Les Cayes in a valley at the foot of bucolic mountains, Maniche sits close to the epicenter of the quake, and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault line runs through it. That proximity means the once quaint village of single-family concrete homes, a beloved century-old Catholic Church and two health clinics is now a scene of disaster after almost being completely leveled by the quake. Almost everything is either destroyed or badly damaged.

While the destruction highlights the force of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that shook Haiti’s Tiburon Peninsula, it also underscores the challenges facing the country and international donors as they begin to consider rebuilding.

Brinard says the population of Maniche is between 28,000 and 38,000. Since rubble removal, they’ve destroyed 28 to 30 percent of the partially collapsed or unsafe structures. “We are talking all measures for people to not do repairs,” he said.

Tarps have been distributed as temporary shelters, he added.

On Thursday, as Samantha Power, the top administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, visited the community, Brinard told her that of the 9,800 homes in Maniche and surrounding rural areas, at least 5,616 have been destroyed, including 216 houses in the center of town.

Very little appears to have been spared by the shaking, which brought down buildings, shifted the mountains and disrupted the town’s drinking water supply.

Overall, about 800,000 people have been affected by the earthquake, which destroyed or damaged more than 129,000 homes.

“We saw a school that had been completely flattened, putting at risk the start of the school year,” Power later said at a press conference back in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince. “We saw a health clinic that had been partially damaged and is now overwhelmed by need. And we met with families who are in dire need of shelter.”

U.S.’s $32 million in aid

Soon after her visit, Power announced that the U.S. was providing an additional $32 million for aid. But like the $187.3 million aid appeal launched the day before by the United Nations, the money isn’t for reconstruction or recovery, but to support the ongoing urgent humanitarian needs.

“We know there will be shelter needs alongside longer-term public health medical needs, water needs and sanitation,” Power said. “So we look forward to continuing the very specific discussions with specific communities and how with all of the needs across so many sectors, we build this recovery together.”

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A woman lays her clothes out to dry on a collapsed wall in the town of Maniche on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. The town in Haiti’s southwest was destroyed by the earthquake on Aug. 14. Jose A Iglesias [email protected]

The number one need, the administrator said of the people she met, is emergency shelter.

“I met a 69-year-old woman who was in a family of six who, when it is not raining, is sleeping outside with the rest of her family and when it rains now she is sleeping in what used to be, what was the attic of her home, just under where the roof was that is now the floor you walk in on, or you crawl in on,” Power said.

Last week, a senior administration official told the Miami Herald that it was too early to send tents and tarps to Haiti, even as Haitians who have been forced outside for days in remote, rural areas near the earthquake’s epicenter clamor for shelter amid the continuing rain.

On Monday, 1,000 tarps were delivered to Maniche by the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration. The tarps came from the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team, said a U.S. official in Haiti, adding that more tarps are coming.

A USAID official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald on Friday that the agency is distributing shelter supplies, “including plastic sheeting and shelter repair kits,” to help Haitians make repairs to their homes or provide temporary shelter.

“These kits include rope, nails, and other hardware,” the official said. “USAID provides plastic sheeting because it is durable and adaptable to different shelter needs.

“USAID does not plan to provide tents, and is prioritizing assistance that enables people to take shelter as close to their homes and immediate communities as possible,” the official continued.

As of Thursday, USAID had distributed 2,700 plastic sheets, 2,300 shelter repair kits, nearly 2,900 hygiene kits, 1,600 blankets, 700 jerry cans to safely store water, and 1,100 kitchen sets to the region. More is on its way, the official said.

Rebuilding a top priority

Brinard, who fears that people will start building unsafe structures for shelter, said while humanitarian assistance and emergency shelter are needed, rebuilding homes is the top priority. Most of the town’s residents are sleeping in the streets because of their unsafe or collapsed structures and the ongoing aftershocks.

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Part of a health clinic in the town of Maniche in southwestern Haiti. The town is among the worst hit from the Aug. 14, 2021, earthquake. Jose A Iglesias jigle[email protected]

But he cannot do the rebuilding alone, Brinard said, as he supervised an effort by Samaritan’s Purse aid workers to make water available again. The reconstruction cannot be done like before, where bricks lacked sufficient amounts of cement and iron rebar, and buildings were not built to resist the jolting of the earth.

What happened in Maniche “has surpassed the [financial] capabilities of the town administration,” Brinard said. “We don’t have sufficient means, we don’t have enough resilience to respond or give a response.”

In addition to international assistance, reconstruction requires cooperation between the local and central governments, he said, to ensure that the construction takes place in the proper way and with proper permitting.

After the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti did adopt a new building code. But it was never approved by Parliament and enforcement has been inconsistent. One government-run hospital, OFATMA in Les Cayes, built in 2015, suffered widespread structural damage during the Aug. 14 temblor.

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A dump truck dumps earthquake rubble on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in an empty field in Maniche as the cleanup begins after the Aug. 14 earthquake. Jose A Iglesias [email protected]

Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, told the Herald after visiting the region last week that enforcement of the building code is important.

“We see too many buildings going up and not adhering to the building code, which explains why some of the public buildings, schools have damage and will prevent some of the children from going to school,” he said.

Haiti’s cash-strapped government has been trying to get aid to the quake-ravaged zones and prevent a repeat of 2010’s biggest post-quake disaster — the appearance of shantytowns and tent cities consisting of corroded zinc sheeting and concrete block structures.

The largest of them, Canaan, which derives its name from the biblical promised land, is located just north of Port-au-Prince. With a population larger than many Haitian cities, Canaan grew out of the United States’ insistence that then-Haitian President René Préval find suitable land to relocate homeless quake victims.

This time, U.S. officials insist they are applying lessons from 2010’s failed recovery efforts and are taking their lead from the Haitian government.

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USAID Administrator Samantha Power speaks during a press conference at Port-au-Prince-Toussaint Louverture International Airport. Behind her are U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison, left, and U.S. Southern Command Adm. Craig Faller. Jose A Iglesias [email protected]

Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who joined Power at a press conference after her Maniche visit, said that while the government is addressing the urgent humanitarian needs, it is also giving thought to reconstruction.

“Right now our immediate concern is to provide them with a roof over their heads, tarps, give them tents,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, we are going to remove the rubble from the schools … so that the students can go back to school. We’re going to build temporary hangars for schools in the three affected departments.

“Beyond that we have started to organize ourselves to do a reconstruction plan, not only physical but economical reconstruction in the affected areas,” he added.

‘It can be rebuilt’

Patrick Pierre, 50, who lives in Port-au-Prince but came to Maniche to help with the response, said any reconstruction plan must include urban planning for the area.

“We’ve arrived at a moment when things need to change,” Pierre said, noting that the damage other countries suffer from earthquakes is not on the same scale as Haiti’s. “For things to change, they need to come with technicians in construction, a new methodology of construction. Even if I don’t have the money, I can find the assistance.”

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Men ride by homes in Maniche, Haiti, on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. The houses were damaged during the Aug. 14, 2021, earthquake. Jose A Iglesias [email protected]

If the international community really wants to help, he said, “they can come teach Haitians another way to build that’s appropriate for earthquakes and even tsunamis.”

As he spoke, Sandra Senat, 47, who owns a house in the community, chimed in. Senat was on the road traveling from Port-au-Prince to Maniche when the ground started rumbling at 8:30 a.m., she said as she sat on the porch of her partially collapsed green and white house.

”I cried,” she said. “Everything is destroyed.”

In 2010, Senat was in Port-au-Prince when the 7.0 earthquake nearly destroyed the city. She spent months sleeping outside and nearly two years homeless. Senat hopes that Maniche doesn’t suffer the same fate of broken promises.

”It can be rebuilt,” she said.

Shifting mountains

The Aug. 14 earthquake joined two previously separated mountains surrounding Maniche.

”It’s two mountains that were 200 meters apart,” Brinard said pointing in the distance .”For someone to travel from one to the other it would have taken anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. … Now, they are stuck together.”

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People take shelter on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, under a mango tree next to what used to be a nightclub in Maniche, a town in southwestern Haiti devastated by the Aug. 14 earthquake. Jose A Iglesias [email protected]

Pipes that fed spring water from the mountains into the town were fractured as a result. To help, Samaritan’s Purse brought in a filtration unit to restore a source of clean water.

On Monday, aid workers wearing blue-and-white Samaritan’s Purse T-shirts were out at a local park hooking up the system. It can supply water to up to 10,000 people each day, Kaitlyn Lahm, a spokeswoman, said.

“As soon as it started running, people from the community, kids carrying jerry cans, all started coming out filling those up,” she said. “They were just so excited to have access to water again.”

McClatchy senior national security correspondent Michael Wilner contributed reporting from Washington.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.