One month on, Haiti’s children grapple with a disaster
A devastating earthquake upended the lives of thousands of children. UNICEF and partners are on the ground to support them, but the needs of families are massive.
“I don't remember how long the earthquake lasted. The earth began to shake, and everything fell apart,” says 11-year-old Widler. “I was helping my father to make a fire when we felt the earth shake and our house collapsed. We lost everything. Now, we sleep on the street, under a tarp. I’m afraid to sleep under a roof again.”
Early in the morning of 14 August 2021, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, claiming more than 2,200 lives and injuring thousands more. Many families lost everything as hospitals, schools and homes collapsed, leaving communities in crisis.
Cherisme’s left arm was amputated following the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. He was only 4 years-old at the time, so he doesn’t remember what happened in the wake of that earthquake, but he says he’ll never forget this one. “I was going to fetch water when it happened,” he says. “Our house has been badly damaged. We need help, a place to live, water [and] food.” Young people like Cherisme are in urgent need of support to help them recover from the devastating physical and emotional impact of the disaster.
For many children, part of the recovery process will require being able to return to school safely – and to the normalcy and stability of being in a classroom with their friends and teachers. Sadly, more than 700 schools were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, disrupting the education of tens of thousands of children. This latest calamity comes on top of a two-year period that saw many children out of school for months at a time due to political and security challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNICEF and partners are working to establish temporary classrooms until schools can welcome back children and teachers. UNICEF has also been providing nutritional support, non-formal education and psychosocial support to young people affected by the earthquake, including at a centre managed by local NGO Initiative des Jeunes pour le Développement.
Luckenson, a father of three, says there were five people in his house when the earthquake hit, bringing the ceiling down on top of them. “I just remember yelling ‘God, please save us.’ I saw the ground was cracking and all the neighbors ran out to the main road,” he says. “I lost my home, my animals, everything. I don’t know what my children are going to eat.”
“The day the earthquake struck, I saw things that I don’t want to remember,” says Wadelet, a contributor to U-Report. “There were people dead under the rubble, people running, screaming, it was a real disaster,” he says. Within minutes of the earthquake hitting he started filming what was happening in his community of Pestel. In the days following the earthquake, he worked with other U-Reporters to document the aftermath. “Our work helps me feel useful and forget the trauma.” Within 48 hours of the disaster, U-Report Haiti launched two national polls, through Facebook and SMS, to help understand the immediate needs of young people affected by the earthquake.
These needs are massive. Severe conditions in southwestern Haiti – where more than half a million children lack access to shelter, drinking water and hygiene facilities – are rapidly increasing the threat of acute respiratory infections, diarrhoeal diseases, cholera and malaria. The lives of thousands of earthquake-affected children and families are now at risk, simply because they don’t have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
“When families are in urgent need, it’s essential to deliver aid as quickly as possible,” says Fritz-Gerald Mentor, UNICEF Technology for Development Officer. “We’re coordinating our response at every level to make sure the aid arrives on time, in the hands of the families.”
Since the earthquake hit, UNICEF has been on the ground working with partners to provide tens of thousands of people affected by the earthquake with hygiene kits, medical supplies and support to hospitals.
But getting supplies to those most in need isn’t easy. The immediate devastation of the earthquake was compounded by Tropical Depression Grace, which caused flooding and mudslides and further hampered access, particularly to more remote areas. Meanwhile, ongoing insecurity and instability linked to gang violence risks undermining the overall humanitarian response.
Despite the logistical challenges, within hours of the earthquake striking, a UNICEF convoy delivered pre-positioned medical kits to three hospitals in Les Cayes. The kits contained emergency health supplies – including gloves, painkillers, antibiotics and syringes – to treat as many as 30,000 earthquake victims over the next few months.
These supplies are desperately needed in increasingly overcrowded hospitals, where some health workers have been sleeping on site to assist with the influx of patients. Weeks after the earthquake, hospitals such as the Immaculate Conception in Les Cayes continue to receive victims of the earthquake, accompanied by their family and friends. Children and their families in need of urgent care continue to arrive from rural areas where health centres have been destroyed. This is placing a considerable strain on receiving facilities and risks disrupting routine vaccination programs, nutritional screenings, and other essential services.
Ketchnaïda, 13, was shopping for food for her family when the walls of the store she was in collapsed, shattering her clavicle – the bone that connects the arm to the body. “I lost consciousness when they pulled me out from under the rubble,” she says. The first thing she asked the doctor was if she would be able to write again. “I just hope to recover soon and see my friends.”
One month after the earthquake, thousands of children in Haiti remain at risk. Even before the earthquake, children were suffering from high rates of malnutrition, displacement caused by gang-related violence and the secondary impacts of COVID-19. But right now, the humanitarian needs of Haitian children are more acute than ever as entire families have lost everything, including houses, schools, access to water and health facilities.