ST. MARC, HAITI – Unable to find room on one of the many packed Haitian tap-taps shuttling earthquake survivors from the Port-au-Prince capital into Haiti’s inland, two half-sisters felt they had no choice but to walk some 70 miles.
Journal Yprinaa and Sajouste Ferlande, both 21, trekked with only the clothes they wore the Tuesday when the earthquake hit. They walked from packed Port-au-Prince bus stations to a St. Marc depot where a friend met them.
“We can’t go back to Port-au-Prince,” said Yprinnaa. “Our house collapsed.”
The women plan to find work in St. Marc, a coastal province where in the day people pour buckets of water on dusty roads to limit flying particles and on weekend nights attend raucous parties.
Yprinaa and Ferlande aim to start anew. “We’d like to stay here because we don’t see any sort of possibility to return to Port-au-Prince. We have nothing there and it will be hard,” said Ferlande.
The college students are like tens of thousands who have left Port-au-Prince beginning on Jan. 12 when the 7.0 earthquake struck this nation’s capital, crushing government, hospitals and school structures. Since that fateful day, Haitians packed buses called tap-taps, crammed themselves on pickups beds, and even hiked rural routes by foot into provinces such as St. Marc.
The area around St. Marc as most of the northern end of Haiti was untouched by the devastation in the capital and the southern coast. So officials expect that these areas will be heavy burden by a large influx of people who they’re not ready to accommodate.
The Port-au-Prince exodus has set 300,000 people resettling elsewhere in the country. Another 40,000 have sought refuge overseas, according to most recent Haitian government figures.
Despite this large exodus, the streets of Port-au-Prince remain clogged with cars as people try to navigate their ways to do their chores. The traffic has made worse because heavy equipments removing debris clog streets.
Officials have estimated the population of Port-au-Prince at 2 million people, but that number seems greatly undercounted. Furthermore, there are many people who vowed to remain in the capital city because they’ve grown accustomed to the urban lifestyle and bristle about the thought of returning to a rural existence. Even those who have left said they plan on returning when conditions ameliorate in Port-au-Prince.
That defies the conventional wisdom being discussed on radio stations and among average leaders who say that for Haiti to change, about half of the population of Port-au-Prince has to be permanently displaced. They are also calling on the government to seize this opportunity to decentralize government offices so that people can get documents in provincial capitals without having to come to Port-au-Prince.
On Monday world dignitaries including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive unveiled a 10-year reconstruction effort to rebuild the 200-year-old capital during a donor’s meeting in Montreal.
Among migrators emerging in St. Marc are natives who moved to the capital, people who studied in Port-au-Prince and therefore stayed in or near the city, the injured in need of hospital beds, and those who out of shear panic, scrambled to get here.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in St. Marc who isn’t affected by what happened in Port-au-Prince,” said Gary Nonez, when asked if he thought the exodus would squeeze local economies.
In 2008, when four hurricanes pummeled Haiti and left Gonaives battered, St. Marc opened its province to those who needed refuge, he said.
“There were some from Gonaives who stayed and some who left,” Nonez said. “The same will happen with those from Port-au-Prince.”
Rachel Bernjean, 27, left the capital on Jan. 17 with her boyfriend. She’s eager to go back and has already set her return date Feb. 15.
Since the Friday after the earthquake, her grandmother who just turned 90, and an aunt and uncle have been staying inside her Carrefour Feuilles home, which suffered no visible damages.
“That’s where I was raised,” said Bernjean, who worked in the capital as a school crossing guard and was a nursing student. “I have no other place.”
Dieumonett Leonard doesn’t fear returning to Port-au-Prince despite being buried beneath concrete ruins after her second-floor apartment crashed into the first. An estimated 200,000 were injured in the powerful tremor and upwards of 150,000 were killed.
She was recuperating from leg and elbow injuries at a makeshift hospital set up in the Jeunesse En Mission courtyard in St. Marc.
Leonard’s decision to return, however, rests on one criteria: the capital would have to be rebuilt to a more fortified Caribbean city. “The Port-au-Prince that I see now, I’m not going back,” she said.