Schools Collapse, and Haiti's Woes Continue

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Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Rescue workers look at the scene of the church school that collapsed on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince November 8, 2008.

Haiti is a country of constant heartbreak, and the most recent catastrophes in that unfortunate land have become metaphors for the nation's hopelessness. Classes were in session when College La Promesse Evanglique, a school of 500 students in a suburb of the capital, collapsed and crushed at least 91 people, mostly school children. The likely cause: shoddy construction. But nearly a week after the collapse, the government has yet to determine an exact body count. The frustration was compounded when, five days after the disaster, another school suffered a partial collapse. No one appears to have died in that incident.

The infrastructure and economy of the country are as shoddy as the construction of its schools. Precision and planning are as rare as forested mountaintops, swept clean by loggers and people desperate for firewood. Day-to-day survival is hard enough. Rising fuel and food prices led to riots earlier this year. Then four hurricanes pummeled the country in the space of four weeks; the resulting floods displaced approximately one million people, killed more than a thousand and left thousands more homeless. (See pictures of Haiti's food riots here.)

Port-au-Prince fared better than other parts of the country after the storms, but that means it's a likely destination for the survivors of the storms. Increased migration puts an added burden on the capital's limited and overtaxed resources. Indeed, there was very little in terms of first responders when La Promesse collapse. A Haitian fire department exists but in name only. It also apparently gets imaginary money: $50,000 budgeted to repair fire engines and other faulty equipment has never materialized. Meanwhile, the estimated 100 or so firemen are really police officers. "It's a non-number," says a former government security administrator. "They should be getting special training, but they don't." The so-called firemen dug with their bare hands through the concrete rubble of the school to look for and free trapped victims.

It was the international community that came to the aid of the school victims, just as they did the storm victims. After the hurricane, overseas volunteers helped clear roads, reconstruct bridges, and flew in to distribute much needed supplies. But hundreds of thousands of people live in remote areas that are inaccessible with even the sturdiest of four-wheel drive vehicles. There are only 2,400 miles of road in Haiti, which is the size of Maryland; and of those roads, just 600 miles are paved. There are also only 10,000 doctors, most of whom are located in the urban centers.

While the school collapses have been in the news in the last week, the country is still drowning in the aftermath of the storms. Gonaives, the country's third largest town, was the hardest hit and is still buried under 3 million metric tons of mud. Medecins San Frontiers (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) has set up mobile clinics, distributed water and constructed a temporary hospital in Gonaives, since the government hospital was completely destroyed during Hurricane Hannah in late August. In hard-to-reach areas, however, malnutrition is growing and the food supply shrinks. Daily food insecurity affects 40% of Haitian homes. In the small town of Belance, MSF discovered that 25 children have already died of malnutrition. "We fear that this is only the tip of the iceberg," says Dr. Henriette Chaouillet of the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, as many as 2,000 people in Gonaives area have moved into schools just to be closer to food distribution centers. The government announced that it intends to open those schools by December, but has yet to say where it will relocate the refugees. Given the recent standing of Haiti's schools, they may be well advised to find some other kind of shelter soon.