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.
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.
“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.
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.”