CAMP PERRIN, Haiti — "Yon ti kote apa." The people of Camp-Perrin, located just 15 miles north of the largest city on this southern Haitian peninsula, like to say “it’s a very special place.” Green in a denuded nation, peaceful in a sometimes volatile region, it prides itself on being different.
That uniqueness, say residents, who are among the hardest hit from last month’s powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake, is what will get them through the worst disaster they have ever experienced.
“It’s Mother Nature at work,” said Oblate Father Jean Pierre Constant Loubeau, the superior at the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order that runs Mazenod College in Camp Perrin near Les Cayes.
In a commune that prides itself on valuing education, Mazenod College stands out not just because of its sprawling campus of large overhanging trees and brightly colored flowers, but its reputation.
For more than seven decades, the school has been one of the region’s leading institutions, educating future leaders as well as priests, and providing educational classes for, among others, children whose parents have turned them over to other families to work as domestics, known as Restaveks.
In many way, its collapsed classrooms and crumbled sleeping quarters where two priests were trapped underneath the rubble before being rescued, underscore the loss throughout Haiti’s Tiburon peninsula, where more than 129,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, according to the government.
But instead of the despair found in many communities across the southwest, where life was upended on Aug. 14, there is — like in the developed urban reaches of Camp Perrin— hope amid the rubble.
“It’s not the end of the world, life will retake,” Loubeau said with conviction. “All of these buildings have collapsed, but we are still here.”
A month after Haiti’s devastating disaster, communities along its southern peninsula are still struggling to find aid and shelter. Homes have been destroyed, schools and hospitals turned to rubble and hundreds of people remain missing along with the more than 2,200 confirmed dead.
Optimism, while it exists, isn’t always easy to find.
The country was already facing rising hunger and gang violence when the disaster struck. And the quake has only added to the woes in a nation still reeling from the shocking July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
In the wake of the tremors, multiple assessments by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations paint a grim outlook for both the unfolding humanitarian crisis, and the prospect for recovery without additional aid from the international community.
For example, a “Rapid Gender Analysis” by CARE, U.N. Women and the Haitian government on the impact of the earthquake on people’s lives according to sex, age, and other conditions of vulnerability, show that 60% of communities in the three regional departments of the South, Grand’Anse and Nippes were left without access to potable water.
Additionally, the findings suggest that women, who represent 40% of households in the affected communities, have been particularly hard hit, with limited or no access to health care and rising fear of sexual violence.
According to the report, 53.6% of women and 46% of men have already encountered difficulties in accessing health services due to the current health crisis, and the lack of housing and shelter is perceived by 83% of those surveyed as leading to insecurity and increased risk of violence.
And despite the delivery of food, spiking hunger has been raised as one of the pressing needs to be addressed. The earthquake has exacerbated preexisting vulnerabilities, with the destruction of markets, rural roads and irrigation systems.
“Those interviewed asserted that they did not receive sufficient support,” the gender analysis report said. “The most vulnerable, children, the elderly, the sick, and those living with disabilities seem to have difficulties accessing food being distributed.”
Muhamed Bizimana, CARE Haiti Assistant Country Director, said based on the assessment, there needs to be a more inclusive response that creates space for women, children, people with disabilities and other vulnerable populations.
“Without their direct involvement, the recovery is at risk of leaving them behind,” she said.
Added to the challenges is the situation with schools. More than 1,060 school buildings have been damaged, including 171 that were completely destroyed, the United Nations said. Mazenod College is one of them.
Earlier this month, Haiti’s government announced that schools for students in the quake-affected regions will start on Oct. 4, as opposed to Sept. 21, when the rest of the country is scheduled to return to the classrooms.
But on Monday, the nonprofit Save the Children said it is unlikely that shelters would be built safely in time for classes to resume by the adjusted start date.
“Children in Haiti have survived a nightmare event, and the fear and stress continue,” said Perpétue Vendredi, Save the Children’s Deputy Country Director in Haiti.
“Many have lost everything — their homes, even family members and friends,” she added. “Children tell us they struggle to sleep. They desperately need to return to the predictability and support that a school environment provides.”
Ann Lee, who runs a charity in the region co-founded by Hollywood actor Sean Penn that has been helping to remove rubble in some of the affected communities, says she is concerned that “people are desperately looking for a quick fix” in Haiti because there are so many competing urgent needs. But there are none, and the country needs more support from the international community.
“The earthquake has further exposed the devastating impact of a decadelong disaster,” said Lee, chief executive officer and co-founder of CORE. “There can be no more short-term solutions, especially for marginalized and underserved communities that are hit hardest by crises such as this.”
CORE, she said, is focused on building sustainable solutions so the infrastructure is in place to help mitigate the impact of future disasters. “We need to build neighborhoods, not just houses,” Lee added.
Last month as Father Loubeau surveyed the crumbled concrete and fallen wood, his concerns were not where he and his fellow priests would sleep, but how they would accommodate the 900 students they were set to receive for this school year.
“We cannot abandon the children,” he said. “It’s education that is the backbone of the economy over here.”
On Monday, he repeated the sentiment as he and fellow priest, Father Corneille Fortuna, who was among those pulled from the rubble, watched as workers cleared the last of the debris.
“If we leave the children at home, it won’t serve any purpose,” Loubeau said. “It’s with schooling and the support it provides that will help them.”
Loubeau said while classes will not be ready to resume by Oct. 4, he is aiming for either mid-October or the end of October at the latest.
“We are doing an evaluation for tents and temporary shelter,” he said hoping to be able to raise enough funds for the latter. “No matter what, the school has to reopen.”
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate were first introduced in Haiti in 1943 by an American priest, and the buildings that collapsed date back to 1945.
Spread out across several parishes in the country, Camp Perrin’s cemetery is the final resting place of all the Oblates who die in Haiti.
Mazenod College was the second high school ever to open in Camp Perrin and is in many ways the heart of the community, Loubeau said.
“We are the ones who are here and we have to rebuild. We have to leave our mark as a generation,” he said.
Carmélie Montuma, a resident and graduate of Mazenod College, said the effort taking place to prepare the campus to receive students speaks to what separates Camp Perrin from other communities in Haiti.
“When we say, ‘Yon ti kote apa,’ it’s not just a slogan. It’s in our blood, it’s in who we are,” she said. “It’s in the way we live, in our education; Camp Perrin is one of the communes that is most educated in the country.”
In the weeks since the disaster, Montuma said the friends of Camp Perrin have come together to provide aid, including hygiene kits and basics like potable water to rural sections of the commune, where humanitarian assistance has been hard to reach.
“Even if they don’t know what tomorrow will bring, the people here have a sense of hope,” she said.
That sentiment is widespread throughout Camp Perrin, where despite the surrounding despair, residents vow to rebuild.
“We will certainly rebuild,” said Jeff Pierre-Louis, 34, standing against the backdrop of his family’s collapsed home. “It’s the effort of the people who transformed Camp Perrin into what it is today; it wasn’t always developed like this.”
Those people include his uncle Roosevelt Edma, 63, and Edma's wife, Magalie Constant, 53, who died in each other’s arms shielding their 15-year-old daughter from the collapsing debris when the ground began to shake at 8:30 a.m..
Pierre-Louis was at home in Port-au-Prince, more than 130 miles away, when he said he felt it even inside his own home. After it was over, his first call was to his mother, Guerda Edma Pierre-Louis, in Camp Perrin. He had no idea that the quake’s epicenter had been nearby.
After being unable to reach her by telephone, and believing it was a communication problem, Pierre-Louis said he soon learned the horrible news. His mother, uncle, aunt and their 15-year-old daughter Meghan were all trapped beneath the rubble of his uncle’s multi-story home.
His mother and cousin, who was later hospitalized in the capital, survived. His aunt and uncle, Magalie and Roosevelt Edma, well-known entrepreneurs in the community, did not.
“For me, an earthquake wasn’t supposed to happen here. We know that earthquakes happen here, but when we say Camp Perrin is a very special place, it’s to say that it happens everywhere but here,” Pierre-Louis said.
But it did happen. The devastation, while not on the scale of the 2010 earthquake that nearly destroyed Port-au-Prince, has come with the same sense of personal loss and pain.
“We are victims not just because we lost a house but because we have people who died,” he said. “My mother came out, I don’t know how she was able to get out, but she did.”
The elder Guerda Edma Pierre-Louis, 64, was inside the house lying down when she said she heard the ground rumbling. With bad knees due to arthritis, she could not run and instead lay on the floor.
“I just dropped to the floor and said, ‘God, do what you want with me,’” she said.
A portable closet fell on the bed, covering her, and perhaps saving her life.
“It’s because things fell on the closet that I wasn’t badly hurt,” said Pierre-Louis, who walked away with just a scratch.
“A television hit me but the only injury I have is this,” she said, showing a scratch on her arm. “But what hurts is that my brother was in a back room with his wife and his child, and my brother died and his wife died.”
“God saved me, miraculously,” she added. “During the shaking I had to stay upstairs. It’s when it was finished that they came to get me.”
Listening to his mother recount the story, Pierre-Louis is shaken. But his resolve, he said, remains.
“We always say that Camp Perrin is ‘Yon ti kote apa.’ When we say that we mean it in every way,” Pierre Louis said. “You will see here, Port-au-Prince can have problems; Les Cayes can have problems, but they never arrive here.”