Haiti Earthquake - our response

Vanessa Guillaume, Oxfam employee in Haiti and her mother
Earthquake survivor Vanessa Guillaume (right) with her mum, Esther Gulliaume, Oxfam Emergency Food and Sustainable Livelihoods Team Leader

On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck Haiti. More than 220,000 people were killed and over 300,000 injured.

The massive earthquake, the biggest the region had seen in 200 years, left more than 1.5 million people homeless, and resulted in an immense humanitarian crisis. An already severe situation deteriorated in the first year, with tropical storms causing more destruction and a cholera outbreak leaving thousands more dead.

The immediate aftermath

Despite the immensity of the crisis and broken communication channels, thanks to your support Oxfam’s 100 strong team, including 15 emergency specialists, was on hand to respond with provision of clean water, shelter and basic sanitation, as well as by helping community canteens provide daily hot meals. 

By providing paid employment to the people in the camps; to keep the camps clean, build latrines and clear up their destroyed neighborhoods, we put money in the pockets of those who needed it most and helped them improve their living conditions.  We reached 300,000 people with aid in the first three months.  

The level of destruction and logistical challenges were among the worst Oxfam had ever faced. The Oxfam office and a key warehouse full of vital water and sanitation equipment were destroyed when the quake struck. Like thousands of others in Haiti Oxfam staff were not left untouched by the disaster. 

Despite personal losses, including two Oxfam employees, a day after the quake most Oxfam staff were back in the office and they managed to salvage some of the stock from the destroyed warehouse. Oxfam Country Director, Yolette Etienne told her staff there was “no other option but to work and to work harder since we have the privilege of still being here and we can help people to overcome their desperation.”

Vanessa Guillaume, earthquake survivor who was employed by Oxfam to promote public health in the aftermath:

“Imagine your house being totally ruined after a natural disaster. In less than a minute, you lost what you’ve been fighting for years to keep. The little things you possessed, the little money or business you had, even your loved ones. But as you look around, you realize you’re not the only victim, because hundreds of people surrounding you are in the same situation. The earthquake may have caused a lot of wreckage, but it also gave people like me a chance to help repair our country and build a better future.” 

Cholera outbreak

When the cholera outbreak struck 10 months after the earthquake had wreaked havoc, we provided clean drinking water, and mobilized emergency specialists to double our cholera response; setting up more water, sanitation and hygiene programs. We reached over 700,000 people in the capital Port-au-Prince, Artibonite in central Haiti, and Cap Haitien in northern Haiti, in the month after the first cases were confirmed.

Building the future

Before the earthquake, Haiti was already one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Recovery has been long and fraught with difficulty, the threat of cholera and regular tropical storms, mean that Oxfam’s emergency response capability will always be a core part of our program.  However, alongside the immediate and urgent need for aid, we also saw opportunity; a once in a lifetime chance to help Haiti reconstruct a more equitable future for all its people.

Four years on and we have recognized positive efforts on behalf of the Haitian state to take on a leading role, Oxfam highlights the need for the creation of inclusive processes ensuring the participation of Haitian civil society organizations, communities and citizens in this process.

Vanessa says: “The earthquake left a lot of people unemployed, but it however gave us the drive to rebuild, not only our country, but also ourselves. It gave all of us an opportunity to make a huge difference in our surroundings. I wanted to be a part of that difference. And Oxfam has given me that chance.”

Focus on longer-term development: promoting sustainable and structural change

We have moved to working in communities rather than camps, most displaced people having now moved on. We are looking for local organizations to partner us in Haiti, to create initiatives to strengthen citizen participation.  We are supporting employment creation through development of small enterprises and are building stronger and safer neighborhoods by supporting the construction of long-term sanitation services. We are also supporting small scale farmers.