Two years after Haiti earthquake, Jersey Shore residents keep trying to help

Two years after a 7.0 earthquake shattered Haiti’s life, landscape and an already impoverished economy, Jersey Shore residents who sought to help the Caribbean nation express hope but also continued frustration over the slowness of progress despite billions of dollars in aid.

The Rev. Sony Augustin, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Asbury Park, is one of those Haitian-Americans who are concerned. He last visited Haiti in August.

Augustin, the Rev. Guy Jean Florival of the First French Speaking Baptist Church, and others in the local Pastors For Haiti group are sending a new shipping container of medical supplies, wheelchairs, food and clothes in the next two weeks, mostly to address the cholera that raged after the earthquake and still lingers there.

The group still has $17,000 left and is working with the Baptist Mission in Fermathe in the hills above the Haitian captal of Port-au-Prince, located just 16 miles west of the quake’s epicenter and reduced in many sections to rubble Jan. 12, 2010.

“The Baptist mission serves a large community of poor,” Augustin said. “There’s a school there, a church there, a hospital there and I think that hospital is the greatest gift to Haiti.”

Augustin’s concern is seeing so much money earmarked for Haiti worldwide and his belief that some of it is being wasted.

“All the money you remember very clearly talking about — billions of dollars given to Haiti,” Augustin said. “I’ve never seen such extravagant generosity of all the people toward Haiti. Then, the money was never given to the Haitian government because all of us living overseas knew the Haiti government was not accountable. So we’re asking now how can this money is to be used.”

What was frustrating on his latest trip, he said, was seeing so little tangible evidence of rebuilding. He believes that many nonprofits and other groups carrying out projects are not answering to anyone. He wants money to go to roads, electric plants and other infrastructure.

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What he saw, the minister said, were expensive cars connected to people sent in to help by agencies — expensive cars running on nonexistent roads.

The Haitian government has revised death figures and says that 316,000 people were killed in the quake, but other estimates are lower — 42,000 to 92,000 – so the number of dead is not known for sure.

What is agreed on in most recent reports is that the thrust of the effort at present is to get people out of the tent cities and camps and into homes once again.

According to the International Organization for Migration, there were 1.5 million Haitians left homeless in July 2010, and the number of camp residents now is 515,819 in 707 identified sites.

The IOM also reports that more than 100,000 transitional shelters have been built housing 420,000 people.

The organization, in its recent accounting, said it helped local contractors to build more than 10,000 transitional shelters and durable homes and placed an emphasis on using local contractors to build irrigation canals and to develop skills to grow their own businesses.

The American Red Cross reports that it has spent or signed agreements to spend $330 million of the $486 million donated so far and says although efforts were hampered by tense security and the ongoing cholera outbreak, they believe there has been progress the past year toward longer-term solutions. The Red Cross is focusing on housing, medical and health initiatives.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund reported that as of Jan. 6, the fund had committed $36 million to promote sustainable economic development and gave as an example a $350,000 loan to help Global Home and Office Smart open a downtown Port-au-Prince store that sells computers, office supplies and textbooks.

In April, a new president, Michel Martelly, won a runoff election and the musician and businessman seems to be breaking through some of the huge mistrust of Haiti’s government leaders.

“We have a good president that knows the floor, been out there, knows Haiti,” said Jean Brutus, whose barber shop and salon, Sir Jean’s World of Beauty on Main Street in Asbury Park, is a nerve center of Haitian Americans at the Jersey Shore. “The real politicians are still trying to stand in his way like a barricade.”

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“It’s the first time I’ve seen in Haiti an open government,” Brutus said. “He’s that type, he likes to help. They’re starting to take people off the tents. They’re working. He’s working with (former President ) Clinton.”

“I do sense a new wind blowing in Haiti in the right direction,” said Joseph Champagne, a Haitian-American and mayor of South Toms River.

Champagne was in Haiti for five days in December, in the role of interpreter for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who went there to talk to different religious groups and to learn about the culture of Haiti voodoo.

Champagne said he is seeing an effort to promote unity among different religious groups, and also among politicians and members of the Haitian Parliament.

But Champagne said he also shares Augustin’s frustration about the money that has been sent in for aid not getting to the government on the basis that the former government was corrupt.

“The people of the world are very sensitive toward what’s going on in Haiti and that is why they’re so willing to give their money, but the money is not trickling down to those most in need,” the mayor said.

He said one problem is that entities carrying out projects are not accountable.

Champagne said he believes it will be Haitians and those Haitians who are naturalized in other countries who will be able to “extricate Haiti out of the condition she’s currently in.”

He is proud of what Haiti gave to the world, the fight against slavery leading up to the country’s independence from France in the early 1800s and the ripple effect of that fight to benefit other countries.

“Because of what Haiti has contributed to the world, helping Haiti is not helping a nation,” he said. “It really is helping the world.”

Augustin said he’s seen a drop-off in local involvement two years after the earthquake and believes it’s because people “don’t want to revive that nightmare.”

But he is continuing the effort. He and local restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach plan to open a restaurant school in Haiti in the future, a facility to train people to help them set up their own business.

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