Haiti: The big picture

Five years ago, Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake.
This is the story of the people the British Red Cross has helped since that day.

“It was a disaster, you can’t imagine what it was like…most of the houses collapsed, so many people died. How did I survive? Only by the grace of God.”

Noel Wilfred

One fine day

12 January 2010, 4.50pm

The working day was nearing its end for Noel Wilfred. The 36-year-old tailor had been running his small shop in Port-au-Prince since 2005. Business was good and the entrepreneur dreamed of setting up a big tailoring company so he could make his fortune.

Sat behind his sewing machine, Noel was hard at work with his two brothers and sister. The family business, called ‘Noel’s Shop’, specialised in making shirts, T-shirts and shorts. The steady whir of machines filled the workshop in Delmas 19, a small, densely-packed community near from the capital’s airport. It was nearly home time.

Not far from where Noel was working, Silienne Adam was sitting in her family home with her husband. It had been an uneventful day. The 54-year-old never went to school as a child and couldn’t read or write her own name. She was by no means alone in that respect. More than 80 per cent of Haitian women are illiterate. Low literacy means little opportunity for work.

Silienne was passing the time by sewing. The mother-of-four was waiting for her cousin Laurore to return home from studying at university.

In 2010, Haiti had the undesirable and oft-cited label of the poorest country in the western hemisphere. More than 70 per cent of Haitians were living on less than $2 (£1.27) per day. It was hard to forge a living in Delmas 19. Petty traders lined the roads selling fruit, veg, charcoal and other merchandise to passing trade. People earned money however they could.

Delmas 19 was a typical slum dwelling – a labyrinth of passages and paths through tightly-packed and poorly built houses. In some places, alleyways between buildings were a matter of centimetres wide. Space was a prized commodity and sanitation was poor.

Some 86 per cent of people in Port-au-Prince were living in slum conditions and half the city’s population had no access to a toilet. The canal running through Delmas 19 doubled up as a toilet and rubbish dump.

Locals referred to it as a canal, but it was nothing more than a glorified open sewer. A narrow stretch of water not more than two metres wide, the canal had been neglected for years. Its banks had eroded and the bottom of the canal was far higher than the original level due to layers of sludge and rubbish.

You couldn’t walk along the length of the canal and makeshift bridges provided the only access across the waterway. Every time it rained, the canal flooded. Water, rubbish and sewage washed through the community with alarming regularity. Not only did the floodwater ruin people’s homes, but it also brought diseases.

Marie Bernadette had grown wise to the flooding. The 59-year-old had been living in Delmas 19 since 1976. She knew the area before it became an urban jungle. Marie built her first home in Delmas 19 out of wood. Many houses were built from wood, which was much cheaper and easier to source than concrete.

But Marie’s home never flooded. The wily grandmother had built a ditch outside her home that protected it from the floodwaters.

On that Tuesday afternoon, Marie, who made a living selling charcoal and rice, was at home teaching her grandchildren. The family didn’t have enough money to send the children to school, only enough to keep them fed. Noise and rumbling from a nearby factory made lessons hard. Large lorries would shake the house; Marie carried on teaching regardless. That afternoon’s subject was maths.

A 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes Haiti
about 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince
220,000 people die
The tremors are felt as far away as Cuba
1.5 million are left homeless

Nowhere to hide


Noel Wilfred felt the floor beneath him start to shake. A deep thundering rumble swept through his tailor shop. Earthquake.

One of his brothers didn’t think twice, dashing out of the house and into the street. Noel grabbed his other brother and pulled him into the hall and to safety. His sister ran for the door, but got trapped by the falling roof. Noel couldn’t go back.

The house collapsed, his sister somewhere under the pile of concrete. The three brothers clawed their way through the debris in search of their sister. They found her, severely injured, but alive. It would be four months before she recovered from her injuries.

Relieved at their escape, Noel went to find his three cousins in a nearby building only to find it had been razed to the ground. His cousins perished beneath the rubble.

“They were in this building, just a few metres away from where we were,” Noel recalls. “When we got there, we saw that the house was completely destroyed. We couldn’t do anything. It was a big house, there was too much rubble.

“It was a disaster, you can’t imagine what it was like. Delmas 19 had been flattened, most of the houses had collapsed and so many people died. How did I survive? Only by the grace of God.”

Noel lost his business to the earthquake. Nothing survived, apart from one sewing machine. It doesn’t work, but its metal casing is intact. Why does he keep it? “It can be repaired,” he says. It can’t be repaired, and he knows that. Only the sentimental value of this bruised machine keeps it from the rubbish tip.


Silienne Adam dropped her sewing. The earth was shaking. Instinctively she ran outside with her husband to flee their collapsing house. All around her buildings were tumbling to the ground. A thick cloud of dust enveloped Delmas 19, plunging it into darkness.

The mother-of-four was safe, as were her children. But what of her cousin Laurore? Silienne went to look for him at the university. All hope vanished when she saw what remained of the university building.

“The university building had completely collapsed,” says Silienne, the grief still etched upon her face five years later. “It was very hard for me, we were very close. The building collapsed on him. We tried to find him, but we couldn’t. We never found his body.”

With nowhere to live, Silienne and her family found refuge at a friend’s house. In front of the house was a small courtyard. It became home for 40 people in makeshift tents. Even if their houses had survived, many people were too afraid to return home for fear of another earthquake.

Aftershocks continued for a week after the initial quake. “They didn’t have anywhere to go,” explains Silienne. “Life was very difficult, we couldn’t find water and there was no food. We had nothing.”


At first, Marie Bernadette thought the factory was making the deep rumbling sound that was shaking her house. She looked out of the window to see dust and houses collapsing. Run. Grabbing her grandchildren she rushed out of the house only to see it collapse behind her.

Most people you speak to about those initial moments tell of their fear and incomprehension. Not Marie. “I wasn’t afraid, I was quite relaxed,” she explains. “This was my area, my home. My mother had told me about earthquakes so I knew about them. But this was my first one.” The grandmother knows she was lucky to survive. Her neighbours didn’t make it.

Nearly 300,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake. People sought shelter wherever they could. For Marie and her family, home became a makeshift tent in front of the factory that she initially thought was to blame for the tremors. They waited for help to arrive.

A cry for help

The British Red Cross immediately launched an emergency appeal for the people of Haiti. The public response was, as ever, hugely generous. Within 36 hours the appeal had raised £1 million. The total amount raised, including contributions from the Disasters Emergency Committee, would reach £23 million.

Red Cross workers from across the world travelled to Haiti to help. The emergency response became the largest single-country operation in the history of the Red Cross.

Red Cross Movement emergency response in numbers…

226,030 households given essentials such as blankets, cooking equipment and mosquito nets
229,977 people treated in Red Cross emergency health-care facilities
195,160 households given food supplies
1.2 billion litres of drinking water distributed
149,204 cubic metres of rubble removed
81,716 households given financial support

Melvin Tebbutt arrived in Haiti to an apocalyptic scene.

“My initial impression was the place was a mess,” says Melvin, who was part of the British Red Cross emergency response team. “There was so much that needed to be done and so much that we could do. The first priority was to help with conditions in the camps.”

Makeshift tent camps sprung up anywhere open land could be found. They were overcrowded, lacked toilets and were liable to flood. Working with the Haitian Red Cross, the British Red Cross focused its efforts on two camps in the vicinity of Delmas 19: ‘Automeca’ and ‘La Piste’.

Some 15,000 people were crammed into the Automeca camp. The number of people seeking refuge at La Piste rocketed to 50,000 people – a population greater than the city of Durham.

“Conditions in the camps were extremely tough,” says Melvin.

"People were quite literally living on top of one another. There was no space between tents and no space for toilets. The conditions were ripe for the spread of disease."

The Red Cross built toilets and health facilities in the camps. Red Cross volunteers worked tirelessly to spread messages about the importance of good hygiene and public health using any method they could – drama, community meetings, posters, radio shows, songs and SMS text.

Emergency response was one challenge. Getting people to stand on their own feet again was quite another.

“We’d learnt from our 2004 Tsunami response – you have an emergency phase, but if you don’t take it through to recovery, your impact is diminished,” explains Melvin. “The earthquake was a large disaster, but the needs of the Haitians were more than just emergency response. So we developed a recovery programme based on livelihoods. The aim was simply to get people back to a point where they could take charge of their own lives.”

The British Red Cross gave each family in the Automeca camp – some 4,000 families – an initial $250 (£160) cash grant to help kick-start their working lives. But as history has shown on countless occasions in Haiti, nothing is that simple.

In October 2010, a deadly new threat emerged: cholera

The poor sanitation in the camps helped cholera spread rapidly. A tiny bacterium, cholera causes extreme diarrhoea and vomiting. Contaminated food and water are the main sources of transmission. Patients can lose up to 10 litres of fluid in a single day. Left untreated, the dehydration brought on by cholera can kill within 24 hours.

Paradoxically for such a formidable disease, treatment is simple. Rehydration with clean water, salt and sugar should be enough to save someone’s life. The British Red Cross set up two cholera treatment centres – one in La Piste camp and the second in Port-à-Piment in the south of the country.

The Red Cross Movement also fought to address clean water, hygiene and sanitation issues. Every day, 2.4 million litres of clean water were trucked in to more than 300,000 people living in the capital’s camps. Mass hygiene promotion programmes reached tens of thousands of people.

But cholera is a tough adversary. Five years later, the disease is still in Haiti. Since the beginning of the epidemic, it has claimed more than 8,600 lives, according to the Pan American Health Organization. The fight goes on.

Rising from the rubble

Noel Wilfred lost his tailor’s shop in the earthquake, save for that one machine. Like many in Port-au-Prince, he left the city in the aftermath and moved to the countryside to stay with family.

“We were very down, very demoralised,” Noel says. “We thought it would be best to get out of Port-au-Prince, so we went to see our family in the countryside. My parents tried to call us to find out if we were okay, but they couldn’t get through. They thought we were dead.”

The 36-year-old spent several months with his family, but with no income to support himself, he felt the need to return to work. With what little money he had, Noel restarted the business by buying one sewing machine. One step at a time, the business began to grow.

Restoring livelihoods was an essential part of the British Red Cross recovery plan. Building business means people have an income to spend, jobs are created, and a community can stand on its own feet again. “The first thing people asked for was help getting back to work,” explains Melvin Tebbutt, now head of the British Red Cross in Haiti.

"They didn’t want money or houses, they wanted to get back to work."

After carrying out assessments, the British Red Cross gave small business grants of £335 to 3,500 families in Delmas 19. In addition, they provided business training to improve people’s prospects for the future.

To maintain long-term support, further loans of up to $15,000 (£9,000) were distributed to 26 local businesses. Noel successfully applied for a loan of $2,500 (£1,600). “I can’t tell you how much the loan helped me,” Noel says, sat behind one of his machines, his dimly lit workshop littered with cloth, shirts and pieces of colourful fabric.

“I used the money to buy two more sewing machines. Each month we pay back a bit of the loan and the profit we make gives me enough money to pay my workers,” he adds.

A ten-minute walk from Noel’s tailor shop is Marie Venite’s small community bakery. It’s easy to find, just follow your nose.

Marie stands at the entrance to the bakery with a warm and welcoming smile. Beside her is a wheelbarrow full of carefully crafted handmade loaves. Two loaves cost five Haitian Gourdes – about seven pence. “It’s the only bakery we have in the area,” beams Marie proudly. But this is more than just a humble bakery.

After the earthquake, a group of residents formed an association to look after the elderly in the community who needed care. They provided simple, invaluable services such as picking up shopping or taking the elderly to hospital. Then the association members had the idea of starting up a bakery and using the profits to help fund their community work.

The British Red Cross gave the association money, which was put towards two ovens, fuel, a wheelbarrow and what Marie describes as a bread maker – a machine with two rolling pins used to roll out the dough.

“I didn’t know how to make bread before,” says Marie. “We have a team of people who make the bread with us. I really enjoy it, it’s a very beautiful process.”

It is a long day for Marie and her staff. The bakery opens for business at 6am and closes at 8pm. But as the 51-year-old explains, life in the community has improved a great deal since the earthquake.

“We spent four months living on the street with nothing above our heads apart from a sheet,” Marie says. “The Red Cross gave us shelters and tents and they helped us set up this bakery. We tell them about our problems and they try to help.”

Laying the foundations

Just like anywhere else in the world, many Haitians move from rural areas to the city in search of work. Some will purchase small portions of land and build a house – anything from a glorified tent to poorly constructed multi-storey concrete houses.

Construction regulations are non-existent and technical know-how is at a premium. The result is a housing stock that cannot withstand earthquakes or natural disasters – one of the reasons why the death toll from the earthquake was so high.

In Delmas 19, the earthquake left the community in ruins. “This is an urban location and the needs were more than just building houses,” says Melvin Tebbutt, head of the British Red Cross in Haiti.

“The community was completely devastated. The canal was broken, drainage water was running everywhere, people were living in unsafe buildings.

"It was clear they needed a complete rethink about how people lived in order to regenerate the area."

There’s no point building new homes if they’re just going to flood, so the first priority was to fix the canal, a task Melvin describes as “incredibly challenging”. Work rebuilding 300 metres of canal began in August 2012. It was finished by Christmas that year.

“It’s a massive achievement, we don’t get any more flooding here, people are extremely grateful,” says Melvin.

The Red Cross also built one kilometre's worth of drainage. Where once water and sewage flowed between homes, new pathways have been built on top of drains that take surface water into the canal.

Children play football on the new open areas. A public space has been created where the two forks of the canal meet. It’s hard to overstate just how much the living environment has improved as a result of the new canal and drainage.

“Before the earthquake this area used to be so dirty,” says Lector Elsina, de-shelling peas as she talks. “There were lots of mosquitoes and our homes used to flood all the time, every time it rained. Now we don’t get flooding any more, there has been a lot of improvement in five years.”

The 46-year-old market trader used to sell her produce along the roadside, which was both dangerous and uncomfortable in the searing sun and pouring rain. After the earthquake, the Red Cross set about building a new market following discussions with the community. By the end of 2012, a new bright red market stood proudly at the heart of Delmas 19.

The 200-square-metre building provides enough room for 32 traders, an abattoir, two public toilets, a shop and a barber, which blares out deafening music throughout the day.

"We were delighted when the British Red Cross built a new market for us, our lives were in danger along the road. We have a very good future here."

Lector Elsina

The British Red Cross has built 152 new houses and repaired 139 other properties. Among those to benefit from a new home in Delmas 19 is Marie Bernadette – you met her at the start of this story.

The 59-year-old splashes water on to the path in front of her home and sweeps it clean. Her new home is a far cry from anything she has previously lived in. “I’m very proud,” she beams. “I feel good here, it’s a lot safer than my old home.”

“After the earthquake we lived in front of an empty factory,” Marie recalls. “We just made a tent and lived there for months. It was hard, we got sick, a lot of people got sick.”

When deciding who to build new houses for, the Red Cross spoke to the community and carried out a study to find out the housing needs of the most vulnerable people in Delmas 19.

“One day the Red Cross came and asked me some questions,” Marie says.

"Then they came back and said they will build me a new house. I felt so happy, it was such a relief. No other organisation was thinking about us, it was just the Red Cross. There has been such an improvement in our lives here, it’s great to live in a clean area."

Listening to residents talk about life in Delmas 19 prior to the earthquake, it’s clear that a great deal has been achieved. But is it enough?

“I am pleased with what we have done,” says Melvin. “You don’t really see the difference unless you saw how it was before. Look at the market and the canal. These things have improved life here immensely. But Haiti has a long way to go. I would agree with anyone who said we could have done more, but we can only do so much with what we’ve got.

“This is the hardest place I have worked. We have accomplished a great deal here. It’s not as much as I had wanted, but maybe that’s always the case.”

'Call me boss'

The homes built by the British Red Cross are designed to withstand seismic shocks. But it’s not enough to simply build new homes and leave. Construction skills, knowledge and standards are being passed on to a new workforce who will help bring about a long-term change in building practices.

All of the construction work undertaken by the British Red Cross in Delmas 19 has been done so using local labour. As part of this, the Red Cross has trained 10 boss masons and 40 trainee masons.

Meet the masons who have rebuilt their community…

Jules Bastient, 34, boss mason

“I’ve been working for three years with the Red Cross. We’re teaching the trainee masons everything they need to know. If we have more trained masons, it will be good for the country. It’s very important that people have good construction skills. When they go to build a house on a non-Red Cross site, they can teach people how to build properly, so it’s very useful.”

Micheline Richard, 44, trainee mason

“It’s hard work transporting bricks and mortar, but I enjoy it. I feel good when we finish building a house. People say ‘that house was built by a woman’ and I feel very proud. When we finish our training we’ll get a certificate, which we can use when we apply for jobs. My children are happy for me, they call me ‘boss’, they don’t call me mum anymore.”

Vincent Aialdie, 35, trainee mason

“I want to help rebuild my country. It’s really hard work but I enjoy it. Delmas 19 was completely destroyed, but a lot has changed in five years. Some men think us women can’t do the same manual work as them, but we’re strong enough and I think us women do a much better job!”

Erminal Beteleine, 40, trainee mason

“Before the earthquake the construction standard was very bad, which is why a lot of houses were destroyed. When I saw the Red Cross was building strong houses I wanted to become a mason to help. The progress has been really good. I really like the work and I’ve learnt a lot. We laugh together and we share everything. My children tell their friends that their mother can build a house.”

The British Red Cross has left behind a host of skills in Delmas 19 that will create an enduring legacy. Perhaps the most endearing of these skills is the ability to read and write.

Remember Silienne Adam? We met her at the beginning. She lost her cousin and her home to the earthquake. The mother-of-four also couldn’t read or write. Today, things have changed.

Since the beginning of 2014, Silienne has been attending literacy classes organised by the British Red Cross. They have changed her life. Three times a week she is the first to arrive at class and the last to leave. When she talks about being able to write her own name for the first time – at the tender age of 54 – you cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of humility.

“I didn’t have the chance to go to school when I was younger,” she explains. “Now I can identify the letters of the alphabet, I can even write my own name.” The Red Cross carried out a study on literacy levels in the local area. One day, a teacher came to Silienne’s home and invited her to come to class.

"I wasn’t nervous, I was happy. I want to learn, I want to have knowledge. I can read the street signs easily for the first time. I am so grateful for the Red Cross, I pray for them."

Silienne Adam

Silienne’s class meets in a local school. The classrooms have no electricity. When the lesson begins at 5pm, the students and teacher rely on torchlight or light from mobile phones. One lady pulls her chair out of the classroom and plonks it in the doorway so she can read in the fading daylight.

They make do however they can. “I like it when the teacher asks me to come to the front of the class,” Silienne beams with an irrepressible smile. “Why? Because I feel happy when I’m writing.”

The Haiti earthquake touched 3.5 million people. Aid poured into the country in the aftermath along with promises ‘to fix Haiti’. Haiti hasn’t been fixed. There are still endemic problems that may never be resolved.

But amid the chaotic, choking and gruelling urban life in Delmas 19, there are some wonderfully uplifting tales to be heard – Silienne’s is just one among many.

The 2010 earthquake brought Haiti and all of its problems to the world’s attention. Five years later, Haiti should not be forgotten.