Haiti quake made gap between rich and poor even bigger

Miami HeraldJanuary 22, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the highest hills of Petionville, above the ruined Haitian capital, there are no dead in the streets. There is no rubble.

The earthquake that killed tens of thousands in the city below hardly touched the people of this wealthy neighborhood.

"Most of them chose to leave Haiti until the situation improves,'' said Jean Robert, 55, a worker who has been reinforcing walls in the posh neighborhood. "There are homes that have had damage. But they're few, and I don't think it's a problem. They'll build other ones.''

On the lower sides of the same hill, the change of scene is dramatic: The straight, spacious, tree-lined streets give way to a tangle of tiny homes. Bodies still lie amid the rubble, and the victims await help from international relief agencies.

But at the top, business goes on as usual. The hotel Ibo Lele remains open, and there are hardly any cracks in the walls of apartment buildings such as La Clos. Even the church, Divine Mercy Parish, is lucky. There will likely be a Mass on Sunday, and a crack on one of the altar walls will be repaired soon.

"The situation here is different,'' said Father Calixto Hilaire, the parish priest, acknowledging that the impact of the quake was hardly felt among the wealthier families in the district.

Hilaire, who has been in charge of Divine Mercy Parish since 2001, says he feels pain at the uncertainty and chaos that surrounds Port-au-Prince. He says he has been waiting for the wealthier parishioners to offer help, but until now, only one family of the hundred or so that attended services two weeks ago has contributed canned goods, water or medicines.

Janel Lettes, a private security guard who keeps watch and handles the maintenance on a Pétionville mansion, is not surprised that the wealthy have not helped more. He says many residents left the neighborhood for the time being, fearing the aftershocks that have shaken the capital since the earthquake last week.

Lettes carries a shotgun and wears a T-shirt identifying him as a guard. His employer's five-bedroom home, which features a pool and satellite-TV dish, was damaged by the quake and will have to be demolished.

But Lettes said that won't be much of a headache for the owner, a businessman who left the country shortly after the quake and who plans to rebuild as soon as materials are available.

"Aside from that, as you can see, all is tranquil,'' he said. "It sounds like a bad joke, because those below are living through hell, and the people are hungry and desperate.''

The problems of Petionville are small in comparison to the devastation in Port-au-Prince. Gas for the popular four-wheel-drive SUVs is scarce, and the ballet school has closed for the time being. The nearby golf course has been taken over by the U.S. military, which coordinates some relief efforts from there, including moving quake victims to safer areas of the country.

"It's hard to understand. I think things are worse now than at the beginning,'' said Cabrini Demesmin, 30, an artist who creates paintings and drawings for Petionville's residents.

Demesmin inherited a Petionville home from his father, a well-known lawyer who died several years ago. Demesmin shares the home with a dozen family members who fear that the worst is yet to come.

"They have told us to beware of the aftershocks, at least for another month,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Lettes, the security guard, spends his time listening to the news on the radio and asking himself where the half a million people who have been left homeless will end up.

He mused: "There's a lot of space on the hills of Pétionville.''

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