© Adrian Thomas/BRC

Repairing or replacing hundreds of homes damaged by the Haiti earthquake is a major part of the British Red Cross’ £23 million response to the disaster. But more than three years after the earthquake, this rebuilding work is far from finished. What does it take to get a community back on its feet – and why can the process take years?

The 2010 disaster killed thousands of people and threw Haiti into chaos. It left some homes badly damaged, some barely standing and some nothing more than piles of rubble. Many have been partly repaired by the community since the disaster, but some are still far from safe.

The Red Cross is working in the Delmas 19 area of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, a neighbourhood that suffered huge damage. The organisation has already completed big, life-changing projects including a new market and canal, but there’s lots more to do.

Taking time to get it right

Why is there a wait for new homes? A key reason is that they must be a long-term solution, not a quick fix.  Poorly built homes, created with weak materials, made the impact of the earthquake even worse. If a similar disaster happens again, it’s vital the area is more able to withstand and recover from the crisis.

Of course, a community needs more than just houses – so the Red Cross has already provided new latrines keep people healthy, and street lights that keep them safe. Aid worker Amelia Rule has recently spent almost three years working in Delmas 19 for the Red Cross. She says: “A lot of houses fell down in the earthquake. But just replacing them isn’t going to solve problems in the long term.”

The Red Cross is involving the local community in the process as much as possible, giving them the power to decide how their own neighbourhood is rebuilt. This can make things more complicated, but it’s vital if the results are going to meet the needs of local people.

© Amanda George/BRC

Planning and preparing

So how does the Red Cross make sure it’s rebuilding the right way? By painstakingly gathering information that reveals which homes should be fixed or replaced. Staff have built up a complex portrait of the Delmas 19 community – its buildings, streets and most importantly the people that live there.

This includes working out the state of the area’s homes.  The condition of every one has now been recorded on maps tracing the devastation caused by the earthquake. The plots they sit on have been examined too – some are on boggy ground that is difficult to build safely on, while others are overshadowed by buildings at risk of collapse. This information will help decide which can be fixed or rebuilt.

Red Cross staff must also work out who owns and lives in each house – not always easy, particularly as about half of the area’s residents are tenants rather than homeowners. Some residents moved away after the disaster. They might have abandoned their home, or they might hope to return. Are the homes occupied by single adults, families or older people? Are the residents working, and do they have another home they might be able to go to?

All this information helps the Red Cross meet its goal of rebuilding in a way that benefits the community’s most vulnerable members. Deciding exactly who meets this criteria is a really tough call, that could create anger and division.

But, encouragingly, even people who won’t get as much help as some of their neighbours have given Amelia warm thanks for the work the Red Cross has done. She’s confident the community backs the idea of taking time to get things right.

© Adrian Thomas/BRC

The value of trust

In fact, Amelia says the most remarkable thing about her time in Haiti was the close relationships that grew between Red Cross staff and local people. The Red Cross is doing everything it can to encourage these bonds – from hiring local labourers as a way of boosting the area’s economy to letting a Red Cross office double up as a buzzing community centre, giving Delmas 19 a new heart.

Creating good relationships, trust and understanding takes time and hard work. But these ingredients are the foundations for the bricks and mortar building work that is helping local people look forward to a brighter future.