On Accidental Recoveries and Predictable Disasters: The Haitian Earthquake Three Years Later

On Saturday, January 12, 2013, I found myself in a traffic standstill on the outbound lanes of the George Washington Bridge in New York City. As the wind and the inbound traffic whizzed by, the stay cables rumbled and the bridge vibrated underneath. My muscles tensed, my mind stood alert, and I breathed through those sensations that I came to know three years earlier, when thirty seconds of tremors shook Port-au-Prince to the ground. To distract myself, I checked my email. I paused on a message with the subject line “TODAY.” It was from my best friend Lysa in Haiti. In the midst of my panic, she had written: “Today is a date that is important for everyone who was in Haiti in 2010. AN NOU RETE VIVAN!!!” Yes, “let’s keep living!” I thought. 

Over the weekend I received many such notes. Each one reflected the different lives punctuated by this disaster and the community borne by our shared trauma. Yet their messages varied. While several echoed Lysa’s words of inspiration and resilience, others struck a more somber chord. One especially touched me. It read: “It’s another day, another year. We pray for all who were struck by 12 January. Don’t ever forget those who died; always remember those who have losses, and those who are still in misery.” These words dampened the prods to “stay alive” and “hold on,” for they conveyed that it is not only the survivors but also the disaster itself that remain persistent.

Over the past few years, I have been struck by the diverse ways in which those most devastated by the quake have “recovered.” When asked, as I often am, about the millions who lost their homes, I often reply that most have cobbled together a quick fix, but nothing that would protect them from another disaster. I believe this candid response points to a fundamental paradox of the disaster-recovery pattern in Haiti. While “natural” disasters are typically considered to be unintended, and the inevitable response and recovery designed, in Haiti this pattern is turned on its head. Disaster is certain and recovery accidental. In other words, while the precarious situations of most Haitians make another disaster highly probable, the paths out of such disasters are always perilous and unpredictable. It is by now well known that the comprehensive urban renewal plans of “Build Back Better” never materialized. Amid coordination snafus, undelivered funds, managerial incompetence, and political power plays plans for permanent public housing projects, green neighborhoods, and a reconfigured grid were never fulfilled. Meanwhile most of the displaced poor have left the camps. 

I have followed the routes of several people who lost homes in the popular quarter of Bel Air, where I have conducted fieldwork since 2008. Together they articulate the hodgepodge and haphazard outcomes of the recovery effort. A few examples: Bernard, a thirty-year-old construction worker, and his unemployed friend Jean cobbled savings to rent a room in another area of the city. Rolando, a young high school student and his mother, ended up renting a World Vision “temp shelter” near the airport when a female acquaintance, for whom it was intended, decided to live elsewhere. Roseline, a mother of five, and Andre, a single, adult male, both of whom set up camp in the high-profile Champs de Mars plaza, moved back to their old apartments when the Organization of International Migration offered them two-hundred-dollar grants to pay a year’s rent. Each of these outcomes is provisional and incomplete. Whether a targeted NGO project, a camp-specific governmental resettlement project, or the support of family, they represent risk deferred.   

They were nonetheless welcomed. The author of the second email, Nadine, was not so fortunate. Having missed the targeted settlement efforts of the aid apparatus, hope for a father’s renewed employment, and unwilling to move to unfamiliar areas, she and her family number nine of the 350,000 people still “under tents.” Her story exemplifies the spontaneous yet prolonged nature of the recovery effort. It also attests to the probability that this accidental recovery will lead to another disaster.  

Nadine, her mother, father, older brother, and three young sisters were rendered homeless after the quake; their damaged second floor apartment in Bel Air deemed unlivable. Soon after, they moved into the lot of the government’s Office for Elderly Insurance. The Office’s main building had collapsed and eight families with ties to the agency set up campsites in the lot. Nadine’s father, who was employed by the agency, paid fifty dollars to rent the one-room security booth abutting the property’s entrance for six months. To make it habitable, the family fashioned a plywood door and windows, and covered the porous tin ceiling with tarps. The booth was about half the size of their apartment in Bel Air. It had space for only a full-size bed, and it had no shower, nor latrine. It was far from the friends and neighbors who had formed this family’s support group. And since it was not a recognized camp, it was also removed from the aid networks servicing displaced persons in the capital. After a few months of crowded yet lonely living, Nadine gave up. She assembled the seventy dollars for a visa to the Dominican Republic, and, in November 2010, she joined her sister who worked at a Dominican beauty salon. Yet in a few months, she was back in Haiti. She realized in the DR that she was pregnant, and she sought her mother’s guidance for the birth. She had a baby boy the following summer. 

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Kivland, Chelsey, "Security Booth." January 26, 2011 via Author.

About six months later, in December 2011, the family was evicted from their booth. The agency’s grounds manager “rented” the booth to another homeless employee who, presumably, paid a larger bribe. The nine-member family (Nadine’s brother’s pregnant girlfriend joined them) erected a campsite among the others in the lot. They laid beige carpets for a floor and made a tent by stringing USAID tarps and bed sheets from the barbed wire of the property’s fence to tree branches and stakes in the ground. This tent, where they have lived for one year, is far from shelter. Strong winds uproot the tarps, and even minor rains cause flooding.

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Kivland, Chelsey, "Makeshift Tent with Laundry in Front." January 26, 2012 via Author.

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Kivland, Chelsey, "Inside View of Makeshift Tent." January 26, 2012 via Author.

November 25, 2012, I visited Nadine with some friends from Bel Air. When I walked into the gate, I found her sitting in a small, wooden chair rocking her somnolent son. Her eyes were filled with tears. She told us that her estranged boyfriend, her son’s father, was in the hospital with Cholera. “And I’m fed up with this,” she said, sweeping her hand over the property. Once the baby was asleep, she told me that the trouble was that the problems cannot end in Haiti. “A bad thing after another after another.” Our friend, hoping to lighten the mood, interjected with a timeworn idiom: “We don’t know what the future will bring…” 

But do we not?

For Nadine, as for many others, the earthquake was a terrible disaster—but it was also a link in a chain of disastrous events. She fully expects another; and why shouldn’t she? Her situation makes disaster predictable, even imminent. Within this tragic horizon, her modes of recovery, of holding on, remain subject to chance, favors, and occasional aid. 

If the recovered life embodies all the anxiety and risk of a quivering ground, I wonder, can the disaster even be located? This reminds me of Lauren Berlant’s recent suggestion that in precarious situations “the event emerges not as a thing that goes without saying but as a genre whose conventions are stunned, disorganized, and open for change.” For many in Haiti, disaster events seem to meld into a normalized disastrous-ness—where feelings of not just danger but also uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt coalesce. This vernacularization of disaster deepens the meaning at stake in the anecdote I recounted earlier: “Let’s keep living!” Below the inspirational message lies a reminder of the precarity of life in Haiti before and long after this, or any other, disaster.  

Chelsey Kivland is the McKennan Postdoctoral fellow in Anthropology at Dartmouth College. She writes about street politics in contemporary urban Haiti.