“The road is long; don’t kill the dog”

Chris Sheach is World Concern’s Deputy Director of Disaster Response. He’s blogging from Haiti on the third anniversary of the earthquake.

Haiti earthquake damage
One of the 200,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings that were destroyed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

It was three years ago today that a 7.0 earthquake devastated the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. We in the humanitarian community were shocked at the severity of this disaster. Almost 3.5 million people were affected by the earthquake, close to a quarter of a million died, and 2.3 million people were left homeless. The estimated $7.8 billion loss is equivalent to 15 months of Haiti’s GDP. All this in a country where the average family’s annual income is $660, 58% of the population lacks access to clean water, and more than half of the children are under-nourished.

This was a disaster decades in the making, and it’s certainly not going to be an easy fix.

I’ve spent the last week in Haiti, looking at some of the work World Concern has done, and working with our staff here in Haiti to develop the way forward. Coming back every few months, as I have for the last three years, I have seen continued progress and constant change. World Concern built more than 2,000 temporary shelters in the first 18 months after the earthquake, and this week I was hard pressed to find one—not because they’ve deteriorated, but because people are going beyond their temporary situation, improving and rebuilding their homes, moving along the road to the future.

This does not mean that it has been easy. Recent news articles emphasize the long road to recovery, filled with potholes, roadblocks and detours. A road complicated by mismanagement and conflicting priorities.

When I mentioned the long road to my Haitian colleagues, they laughed and told me they know the road is long. In fact, they explained, there is a Haitian proverb, “Chemen lwen, pa touye chen,” which means, “The road is long; don’t kill the dog.”

The dog in Haiti is a symbol of resilience and perseverance. If you’ve been to Haiti you know why. Stray dogs are often stepped on, starved, and rejected, but they just keep surviving. As it was explained to me, “A dog just keeps walking and walking, and it always gets where it’s going.” Haitians don’t expect the road to recovery to be a sprint, but rather a marathon. They will keep moving forward, step by step, until they reach their destination. And we plan to walk this road with them.

T-shelter in Haiti
A mom washes clothes in her transitional shelter World Concern built after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Many families have turned these into permanent homes by making long-term improvements to the structures.

World Concern is shifting our focus from disaster response work in Haiti, as we continue to take steps along the road. Disasters are too common in a country with less than 2% forest cover, poor sanitation infrastructure, and unsafe building practices. Regular tropical storms cause flooding, soil erosion, landslides and collapsed buildings on a yearly basis.

With the help of our donors, World Concern engages communities in reducing their risk to these disasters. Earthquake, tsunami and hurricane preparedness is being taught in schools, and spread through community groups. Early warning systems, flood control, and improved sanitation systems are being established. Schools and churches designated as evacuation centers are being retrofitted to ensure their stability. Local disaster response committees continue to plan, prepare, and train their communities.

Building resilient communities enables Haitians to continue to persevere—and to move beyond their current vulnerability. The earthquake was a significant setback on the road to progress. some estimate that 10 years of development were lost. We want to ensure that, even if natural disasters happen, they are not as debilitating.

The road may be long, but we must continue to walk it, no matter how long it takes. I am grateful for donors that continue to support World Concern and the people of Haiti on the road to resiliency.

You can help protect vulnerable families from disasters and help them prepare: www.worldconcern.org/preventdisaster.