Hand in Hand for Haiti – a city of ruins

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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Driving through the downtown area of Port-au-Prince is like arriving in a city after an apocalypse. Whatever you’ve seen on CNN, this is a hundred times worse.

An estimated 80% of buildings in the heart of the capital’s downtown area were destroyed by the January 12 earthquake. Piles and piles of rubble line the streets where buildings stood a few weeks ago.

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Others have been contorted by the awesome, terrifying force into grotesque, Dali-esque shapes, rendering them completely unusable. The magnificent Presidential Palace (above) has folded like a collapsed meringue cake; the Interior Ministry and Health Ministry buildings are just huge piles of rubble.

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Tented communities (below) have sprung up all over the city, fine as a first step but deeply vulnerable to the rainy season which starts in May.

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Which is why the travel retail industry must help and indeed is helping. Hand in Hand for Haiti, the pan-industry initiative designed to help the reconstruction effort here, has already raised US$1.8 million to build new primary school facilities.

They are desperately needed. Some 4,000 schools and 30,000 classrooms have been destroyed in a 40km zone around Port-au-Prince. This is catastrophe on the most terrible of scales and as always in a disaster zone the young are among the worst affected.

I’m here with fellow Hand in Hand for Haiti Steering Committee members Ed Brennan (Chairman and CEO, DFS Group) and Olivier Bottrie (President, The Estée Lauder Companies Travel Retail Worldwide, to fast-track the project.

We’re searching for a suitable site, meeting the key authorities and trying to establish a sound and sustainable framework for all that we do.

All of us are shaken by what we have seen. Here’s an excerpt of what Ed Brennan wrote to the DFS team earlier today:  “We are making progress building our strategy and have had excellent local support thus far. Yesterday we met with the American contingency here including the US Ambassador. Today we will be doing the same with the French Ambassador followed by the Haitian Minister of Education. Over the weekend we begin to venture out to the provinces.

“What strikes us most is that the news coverage does not come even close to capturing the amount of damage and loss of life. In Port-au-Prince (a city of 2 million before the quake) they estimate 200,000 people lost their lives. There are few buildings left standing or undamaged and the people are now living in the streets for fear that another earthquake is going to strike.

“They also estimate 500,000 people have left the city to go to the provinces. This is one to the reasons we are looking to build our school outside of Port-au-Prince.

“Yesterday we were in the poorest area of Port-au-Prince surrounded by 350 kids (most under the age of 10).  For those in this camp, unfortunately this has been a way of life for far too long, even before the earthquake. This is the most dangerous area of all (we were in the hands of a Pastor who made sure his people took care of us).

“It is hard to describe our emotions… as we were walking down these open alleys the kids would gather around us and all of a sudden you would feel one hold your hand and then another would hold your other hand. When you looked down to see who it was you would see one of the smallest kids – maybe 3 or 4 – with a smile on their face. Before we knew it we had 100 kids surrounding us and they all had big smiles on their faces.”

Since Ed’s report we have indeed met the French ambassador, a quiet, determined and helpful man called Didier Le Bret. And later today we had a near two-hour meeting with Haiti’s Minister of Education Joël Desroisiers Jean Pierre.

Both were delighted that we are here and 100% behind the objectives of Hand in Hand for Haiti.

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Joël Desroisiers Jean Pierre (above with Olivier Bottrie and below with our group) told us: “It’s a beautiful project – the educational needs are huge in our country. We needs schools of excellence and the need is everywhere as a result of the movement of refugees (out of Port-au-Prince).

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“You have to understand that parents here are ready to make almost any sacrifice to send their kids to school. So a project like yours is fully in line with the Haitian government’s reconstruction initiative. It therefore has the agreement in principle from the Haitian Ministry of Education.”

That was a critical statement which boosted us all.

There was more positive news from French Ambassador Didier Le Bret (pictured below with Ed, myself and Olivier), who pledged his full support, while noting it was important to build the school outside Port-au-Prince. “If we focus too much on the Capital we will recreate the conditions for another disaster,” he said.

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It’s late here in Haiti. Ed (and his wife Debbie) and Olivier have been here for three days; I only arrived 11 hours ago. But already I feel I have been here a lifetime, having seen terrible sights on a scale I never thought possible.

And yet there is hope here. The spirit of the people is remarkable. A new Haiti can emerge. We’re all tired but exhilarated by the knowledge that travel retail truly can make a difference to the children of Haiti. The fundraising has gone brilliantly but the really hard work lies ahead.

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