Worldfocus correspondent Benno Schmidt writes about navigating Haiti’s dilapidated infrastructure while reporting there last year.
Driving in Haiti is an experience unlike anywhere else in the world, with roads haphazardly crisscrossing one another, one- and two-way interchanges clogged with patched together cars and buses, dilapidated trucks limping along on fewer than two working axles, taxis and horse- or donkey-pulled carriages breaking down randomly or changing direction suddenly.
Simple trips of only a few miles in length turn into a half-day adventures as private construction or home improvement attempts (underscore attempts) spill into streets with no warning — trapping vehicles and blocking key arteries.
There is no ‘normal’ in getting around Haiti — international efforts in the wake of the earthquake will be hobbled by a country that doesn’t have functioning roads — much less interstate highways — and can’t support large trucks or construction equipment/bulldozers under ideal conditions, let alone after a horrific natural disaster like the recent earthquake.
There are no patterns of traffic, no recognizable right of ways, no sense of order to the mass chaos in and around the capital Port au Prince — the epicenter of the massive quake.
Driving approximates scenes straight out of ‘The Road Warrior’ (if vehicles had room to speed, or functioning mechanics to attain speed!) coupled with a spirited game of chicken.
Traffic halted along nominally one-way streets?
Drivers violently reverse or turn around. What was once one-way is suddenly two ways.
Planning a day around well-intentioned meetings is a vain exercise if any time inside a car is required. Best to agree on an afternoon meeting time — which can quickly morph into an evening or next day rendezvous should accidents or breakdowns occur: probably the only constant while driving around Haiti.
These conditions will make international aid efforts more difficult as large trucks and earth moving equipment—so central to search/rescue/rebuilding efforts will not be able to even move initially.
Simple SUVs are often mobbed in the slums of Port au Prince when UN patrols police areas. SUVs in Haiti have a distinct otherness, a build quality and functionality quotient that screams money, food, drinkable water or work.
They are easy targets for kids and adults looking for company, water, food or work. In desperate times they will be mobbed, surrounded and halted.
In 2009, Worldfocus visited much of Haiti by car and helicopter and found medieval conditions widespread — roads abruptly dead-ending into forests or standing water with no evidence of state run public works or sanitation efforts.
This is what the international community faces when sending aid to Haiti.
Worldfocus documented flooding in the western port city of Gonaives a year after heavy mud slides left 80 percent of the city homeless or under water.
Roughly a 100 miles, the drive from the capital to Gonaives took six to nine hours depending on traffic and road conditions.
A spontaneous political demonstration devolved into a massive block party and kept us motionless for several hours on the way back as we approached the outskirts of the capital…
One year later entire areas of Gonaives were still digging out — by hand.
The hands of elderly men — 70- and 80-year-olds stood proudly with shovels outside city hall offering hourly labor to homeowners deluged with mud — again a year after tropical storms flooded Gonaives.
The odd dump trucks available were slowly moving dirt outside the city, but most of the ‘progress’ was by hand.
There weren’t enough large trucks available in all of Haiti to dig out and move the mud — so a year later people abandoned their first and second floors to standing mud that expands with moisture and brought down so many homes with folks inside.
Haiti’s sorry transportation state is further hampered by cronyism, cheap chicanery, generational corruption, political corruption, squabbling and payoff schemes that keep public projects mired in delay and argument.
Corruption in Haiti is the norm.
Aid workers will have to bring their own communication infrastructure and equipment, and treat the entire area around Port Au Prince as a mass undeveloped area in crisis dotted with broken roads, busted homes and numerous other hazards.
Getting equipment and workers into Haiti will be a lot easier than affecting change once on the ground.
– Benno Schmidt
For more Worldfocus coverage of Haiti, visit our extended coverage page: Haiti’s Poor.