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Haiti earthquake jolts a million city-dwellers to head for 'home'

Haiti’s earthquake reversed a decades-long provinces-to-capital migration, driving as many as 1 million Haitians from overburdened Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials are now see an opportunity to 'decentralize' the country.

By Staff writer / January 29, 2010

An aerial view of Port-au-Prince, on January 15. People who once lived in the overpopulated city are moving back to their rural towns and villages after the 7.0 earthquake wreaked havoc on the city.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor/File


Jacmel, Haiti

Geralda Jean-Narcisse, a school secretary in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, was so traumatized by the Jan. 12 earthquake and the devastation it wreaked around her that she could only think of one thing: getting home to Jacmel, the seaside town 50 miles southwest of the capital where her parents live.

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When she finally got on a hot and crowded tap-tap (a Haitian bus) earlier this week and made her way to Jacmel, she was disheartened by what greeted her.

“I got here and found it’s about the same situation as in Port-au-Prince: collapsed buildings, people living on the streets, everybody wondering about their next meal,” Ms. Jean-Narcisse says. “The difference is that here I’m with my family.”

With one violent jolt, Haiti’s earthquake reversed a decades-long provinces-to-capital migration that had turned Port-au-Prince from a breezy and manageable seaport into a choked and chaotic sprawl of nearly one-third of the country’s 10 million people. As many as 1 million Haitians have left Port-au-Prince for other parts of the country, officials believe – in most cases returning to where they once called home.

Now, as Haitian officials and international development experts start to envision Haiti’s reconstruction, “decentralization” has become an ubiquitous rallying cry. Port-au-Prince should never again be the congested and almost anarchic city it was before Jan. 12, these experts say: Those who have left the capital should be encouraged to stay out.

All of which sounds fine to people in Jacmel, both old-timers and the newly returned alike, with one considerable stipulation: as long as the provincial cities have the services and amenities – like jobs – that drew people to Port-au-Prince in the first place.

“Everybody knows Port-au-Prince was too densely populated, it no longer offered many of the people the kind of living Haitians are comfortable with,” says Maxfarah Rocher, a neighborhood assistance coordinator with Caritas in Jacmel. “But to be serious about a decongestion of Port-au-Prince, there will have to be a good decentralization plan and good follow-through,” he adds. “If people find everything they need in Jacmel – job possibilities, good schools, universities – they’ll stay here.”

A beautiful spot - severely damaged

It’s easy to see why that would be. Jacmel, a small city of fewer than 200,000 people, hugs a coconut-palm-lined azure bay on Haiti’s southern coast. Many houses still boast the town’s early architecture of tall front-façade shutters and front stoops. Most public buildings are of the early 19th-century Caribbean architecture harking back to Haiti’s independence. The town square, named after Haiti’s George Washington, Toussaint Louverture, looks out over the sea.

But much is gone or severely damaged now. More than 7,000 houses were completely destroyed, according to officials. The first few streets of buildings along the seafront were completely flattened by the quake. The city hall has large cracks in its facade and is abandoned, its courtyard now a makeshift camp. And the city’s main hospital collapsed, replaced now by a tent hospital on its grounds.

Despite those conditions, people from Port-au-Prince still came to Jacmel after the quake, most of them people with family like Jean-Narcisse, who craved a sense of home. Assistance organizers say they have no idea of the size of the influx, except from anecdotal evidence.