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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.

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“We’re finding many people who went and got family members to come back to be with them, even if it was to live in a tent,” says Germaine Pierre-Louis, regional director of the Haitian Red Cross. Aid organizations are starting to do a census of the camps and street tents, she adds, which should yield a rough idea of how many people have come here to live at least temporarily.

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A swelling population has also increased demand for services.

“It’s hard to know who are residents of Jacmel and who is immigrating, what we know for sure is that demand for our [medical] clinic is growing every day,” says Mark Peebles, public affairs officer for the Canadian Army’s Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team set up on Jacmel’s wharf.

A week ago, 40 to 60 people visited the wharf clinic daily. By Wednesday, that number had exploded to 300 daily, with no signs of demand dropping off, Captain Peebles says.

The Canadian Army is also operating on the wharf, where one or two ships bringing supplies from the Dominican Republic dock each day. The Canadian Navy has a ship off the bay, with sailors coming in daily to build latrines and repair roads. The Air Force manages operations at Jacmel’s small airport.

Let's keep college students in Jacmel

Ms. Pierre-Louis says that, even as quake-assistance organizers focus on improving aid distribution and coordination, the idea of demonstrating that Jacmel can also become its new residents’ permanent home surfaces in discussions as well.

“In Jacmel we have a lot of university students who were in Port-au-Prince for their studies,” she says. “We’re already thinking about how we can keep those minds here to help in rebuilding their home region.”

One of those bright minds is Thomas Marckenley, a third-year management and accounting major.

“My university and my apartment collapsed in Port-au-Prince, so I had no choice but to come home to Jacmel,” he says, sitting with family on their front porch. He would be happy to live in Jacmel, he says, but first a lot would have to change – starting with the government’s French-inspired hypercentralization.

“Right now, if you want a national driver’s license, you have to go to Port-au-Prince. You want to get a passport, it’s the same,” he says. “With such services, and universities, and jobs all here, of course I’d stay,” he adds. “But I have little confidence the government will change enough for that to happen.”

Some residents say the challenge for the government and international development experts planning a “new” Haiti will be a short window of opportunity for convincing Haitians the country really will change – and that living in the provinces can equal or surpass life in the capital.

“As soon as the aftershocks stop, people will start thinking about going back to Port-au-Prince,” says Michelet Jerôme, a language teacher with the UN’s stabilization mission in Jacmel. “Any plan that envisions a different and decentralized Haiti will take 10 years to put in place, but people aren’t going to wait that long.”