Haiti better off 5 years after quake, though still troubled

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Haiti Earthquake Anniversary
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Haiti better off 5 years after quake, though still troubled
Rosena Dordor, 40, arranges her one-room shack in a settlement in the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. “We love this place because we have made it our home with our own hands and hearts,” the 40-year-old said on a recent morning. The area was initially only meant to house those stuck in tent shelters considered most at risk for floods or landslides, but it is growing so fast that U.S. State Department officials say the settlement could soon be considered Haiti’s second largest city. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Children walk in a settlement in the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. Life is still a struggle in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but this new settlement on the hills north of the Capital, does offer a measure of freedom because there is no landlord for her family or for the tens of thousands of other homesteaders who rushed to stake a claim in the arid hills. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Children pump water from a well at their new community in the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. On the sunbaked hillsides Haitians are taking care of things on their own even as the government is requesting U.S. help in planning the growing towns. Though impoverished, Haitian families here remain hopeful and too pleased with the bit of progress they’ve made to return to the Port-au-Prince slums where landlords kept jacking up rents. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Rosena Dordor, 40, stands in front of her one-room shack in the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. Today, nearly five years after the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti, Dordor lives with her husband and three children in a one-room shack with a plastic tarp for a roof and walls made of scrap metal and salvaged wood. It’s perched on a cactus- and scrub-covered hillside, a long walk from the nearest source of water, and meals are cooked over fire pits. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Children play soccer at a settlement on the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. The area was initially only meant to house earthquake refugees stuck in tent shelters considered most at risk for floods or landslides, but it is growing so fast that U.S. State Department officials say the settlement could soon be considered Haiti’s second largest city. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Rosena Dordor, 40, stands in front of her one-room shack in the arid hills north of the Capital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 9, 2014. Today, nearly five years after the devastating 7.0 earthquake, Dordor has a new place to live with her husband and three children: a one-room shack with a plastic tarp for a roof and walls made of scrap metal and salvaged wood. It’s perched on a cactus- and scrub-covered hillside, a long walk from the nearest source of water, and meals are cooked over fire pits. ( AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
FILE - This Feb. 13, 2010, file photo shows a child standing among makeshift tents at a refugee camp for earthquake survivors in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. A few hours before 19-year-old Britney Gengel was buried alive in the earthquake, she texted her parents her last dream: "I want to move here and start an orphanage." Nearly five years later Gengel's father is fulfilling the dream of his late daughter. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File)
A youth searches for recoverable items left behind by people evicted from the camp that had been set up for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake near the national stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, April 22, 2013. Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told The Associated Press Monday night that there were “some” landowners who were responsible for forced evictions but it was not something the government endorsed. A report by the global advocacy group Amnesty International says forced evictions violate the rights of displaced people at all stages: threats prior to an eviction, violence during eviction and homelessness afterward, and that Haiti has violated international human rights obligations by failing to protect displaced people. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
A statue depicting fishes is seen at a park where a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake was set up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
In this March 21, 2013 photo, Nicolas Richnado watches over buckets filled with water as he waits for his mother to return from carrying a bucket of water to their home in Jalousie, a cinder block shantytown recently painted in colors in Petionville, Haiti. A $1.4 million effort titled “Beauty versus Poverty: Jalousie in Colors” is part of a government project to relocate people from the displacement camps that sprouted up after Haiti's 2010 earthquake. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2013 file photo, residents of the Jean-Marie Vincent camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, wait for customers outside their tent where they have set up a stand to sell rice, oil and canned goods, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. More than a million people were left without homes in Haiti after the quake, but the remaining number of homeless now numbers about 146,000. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery, File)
In this Aug. 17, 2012 photo, the National Palace stands damaged by an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Before year’s end, President Michel Martelly’s administration and the aid group started by Hollywood star Sean Penn will demolish the remains of the Beaux Arts structure so they can build a successor. Some of the surviving pieces of the palace will be carried away by hand by local preservationists. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
Rezilhome Diverne 68, a victim of the 2010 earthquake, sits outside his tent at a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake after the passing of Tropical Storm Isaac in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday Aug. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
In this picture taken on Jan. 6, 2012, a girl walks through the construction site of a new school in the town of Kenscoff on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As the hemisphere's poorest country marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that killed some 300,000 people, only about half of the $4.6 billion in promised aid has been spent, half a million people are still living in crowded camps and only four of the 10 largest projects funded by international donors have broken ground. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
In this picture taken on Jan. 9, 2012, Jenry Del Rosario, 30, an electrician, checks electric cables on iron rods being used to build homes for people who were displaced by the 2010 earthquake on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As the hemisphere's poorest country marks the second anniversary of the earthquake that killed some 300,000 people, only about half of the $4.6 billion in promised aid has been spent, half a million people are still living in crowded camps and only four of the 10 largest projects funded by international donors have broken ground. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
A woman retrieves usable items from the smoking debris left after a previous night's fire destroyed several dozen family tents and makeshift dwellings, at one of the many camps for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, in Port au Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, May 11, 2011. There were no reported injuries. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
A woman holds out her arms in prayer in front of the earthquake damaged Cathedral during an outdoor Mass in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, July 3, 2011. Nearly a year and half has passed since the magnitude-7.0 quake that killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless; many of which are still living in camps, waiting for permanent housing. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)
People pray during a mass held in the rubble of the destroyed Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday Jan. 12, 2011. Wednesday marks the one year anniversary since Haiti's magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated the capital and is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people and left millions homeless. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
A girl walks through the rubble of the destroyed Cathedral as she arrives for a mass in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday Jan. 12, 2011. Wednesday marks the one year anniversary since Haiti's magnitude-7.0 earthquake that devastated the capital and is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people and left millions homeless. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
People walk past quake-damaged buildings in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday Jan 6, 2011. Almost one year has passed since the Jan. 12, 2010 magnitude-7.0 quake that killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Crosses symbolizing those killed in the past Jan. 2010 earthquake stand during a religious ceremony at the Titanyen mass grave site on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. The religious ceremony is one of many events planned to mark the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 12th magnitude-7.0 quake that killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Valerie Placide, left, and her son Cleo Antoni Geneste, 9, pose for a picture near their home in Spring Valley, N.Y., Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011. This week, Placide and other Haitians will mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake that tore their country apart. And some days after that, Placide will reach the one-year anniversary of the day she left her homeland, 9-year-old son in tow, desperate to keep him safe but hopeful the day she could return for a visit or perhaps permanently wasn't too many years away. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Before the earth shook and turned their lives upside down, Rosena Dordor was like millions of poor Haitians, living with her family in a cramped home with no running water or sanitation, struggling to get by and fearing the next rent increase would force them out.

Today, nearly five years after the devastating 7.0 earthquake, Dordor has a new place to live with her husband and five children: a one-room shack with a plastic tarp for a roof and walls made of scrap metal and salvaged wood. It's perched on a cactus- and scrub-covered hillside, a long walk from the nearest source of water, and meals are cooked over fire pits.

Life is still a struggle in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but Dordor's new settlement does offer a measure of freedom because there is no landlord for her family or for the tens of thousands of other homesteaders who rushed to stake a claim in arid hills after the government expropriated a barren zone of 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) just north of Port-au-Prince following the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

"We love this place because we have made it our home with our own hands and hearts," Dordor said on a recent morning while shucking castor beans for a hair product she sells to neighbors. The area was initially only meant to house those stuck in tent shelters considered most at risk for floods or landslides, but it is growing so fast that U.S. State Department officials say the settlement could soon be considered Haiti's second largest city.

The country's complicated housing problems are perhaps the biggest drag on an uneven recovery that has nonetheless improved the lives of many poor Haitians, who say they prefer their living situations now compared to before the quake.

The disaster prompted a huge influx of international assistance, with governments and aid groups arriving to offer both immediate help and long-term development. One of the worst natural disasters of modern times, the quake killed an estimated 300,000 people, damaged or destroyed more than 300,000 buildings in densely packed Port-au-Prince and largely obliterated the government, toppling nearly all ministry buildings. Prisons and police stations crumbled into ruins.

Officials repeatedly said they would be "building back better," and in many ways they have made progress toward that goal.

The two-lane highway running nearly 100 miles from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives is a smooth river of asphalt, not the bone-jarring, off-road experience it was before the quake. There's a new international airport in Cap-Haitien, and hundreds of new schools. Several new hotels have opened, including known brands such as Best Western for the first time in decades. Direct foreign investment in Haiti reached $250 million last year, up from $4 million in 2001, according to the government.

Today, work crews in downtown Port-au-Prince are raising frames for new government offices. The rubble of the national palace has been removed. The wrecked historic Iron Market was rebuilt by Haiti's biggest employer, mobile phone company Digicel. The grim camps and shantytowns that once sheltered some 1.5 million people now hold about 80,000, and the government says they will all be moved out by mid-2015. The police force is being professionalized while growing from about 8,000 officers to roughly 12,000.

Yet the recovery has been uneven at best, plagued by poor planning and accusations of graft. And a worsening political standoff is one sign that progress since the disaster is tenuous.

President Michel Martelly, a former pop star who took office in May 2011, has been embroiled in a stalemate with lawmakers over parliamentary elections, delayed for over three years. Many fear a failure to resolve the gridlock could plunge the country back into familiar chaos.

Critics, meanwhile, say the construction of new slums is not an answer to Haiti's many problems.

"If the international community wants to pat itself on the back for building new Haitian shantytowns, with the collusion of the Martelly government, fine. I don't see evidence of sustainable change for the better," Amy Wilentz, author of "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti," and other works about the Caribbean nation, said via email.

Many poor Haitians say their lives have been complicated by a rising cost of living and lack of jobs, and they put the blame squarely on the government for failing to create opportunities.

"I love my country but it's still struggling thanks to our politicians," said Genyca Wilhelm, a former math teacher who hopes to find work by training to be a car mechanic. "Our international friends have been helping us, yes, but Haiti will always be Haiti. That is good news and bad news."

More than $12.4 billion in humanitarian and development aid and debt relief was pledged by more than 50 countries and international agencies, with at least 80 percent of that disbursed, according to the United Nations.

The U.S., the largest individual donor, provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid and committed an additional $2.7 billion for longer-term reconstruction and development, nearly two-thirds of which has been disbursed. American aid has been channeled toward rebuilding the infrastructure and economy, improving health care and law enforcement. It included developing an industrial park in northern Haiti as part of a strategy to encourage development outside Port-au-Prince.

Economic growth is what Haiti needs most, said Thomas C. Adams, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti.

The economy has had modest growth since 2011 and if the country can keep that pace for 25 years or so, it could become a middle-income country like neighboring Dominican Republic, Adams said.

"Whether they can continue depends on whether they can maintain stability and attract foreign investment, because foreign aid by itself is not enough to fix everything in Haiti," he said.

Some Haitians dared to dream that the aid flowing in after the disaster would make their lives dramatically better. Etienne Edeva, who lives a short drive from Dordor's homestead in a planned area known as Camp Corail, now says it was unrealistic to expect so much change for troubled Haiti.

"We're living in darkness here, but miserable or not we're getting by and making the best of it," said Edeva, who runs a bakery out of her home.

On the sunbaked hillsides north of the capital, Haitians are taking care of things on their own even as the government asks for U.S. help in planning the growing towns. Though poor, Haitian families here remain hopeful and, happy with the bit of progress they've made, they have no desire to return to the Port-au-Prince slums where landlords kept jacking up rents.

Modest businesses have opened in the settlements: barber shops, food stalls, lottery shops, hardware stores selling rebar and wood. Small scrapwood churches and enterprising Voodoo priests bring in the faithful. The wealthiest homesteaders have graduated from homes of tarp and timber to cinderblock.

Outside her hillside shack, Dordor says she has no plans to live anywhere else

"It's either God or death that will move me from here," she said. "In the name of God, we will build a concrete house here someday."

With her children gathered around her, a gust of wind shook the tarp ceiling of their crudely made but cherished home.

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Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.

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