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Five years later, aid workers admit slow recovery from Haiti earthquake

WATCH: As Sean Mallen reports, the rebuilding efforts in Haiti are far from finished after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

TORONTO – When the calamitous earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010 Elvire Douglas was unaware of the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen her home city of Port-au-Prince.

A veteran aid worker for World Vision, she was off in the countryside and it was only when she drove back into the city that she saw how bad it really was.

“I saw bodies on the street, even bodies hanging off the buildings,” she said.  “It was just like an atomic bomb dropped there.”

Her home was badly damaged and her adopted daughter Phaline was missing, believed killed in a collapsed school building where she had been taking a course. Hearing the news, Douglas dropped to her knees, weeping.  But then she got up, and went back to her job as a humanitarian worker, staying up all hours, sleeping outside for two weeks.

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“All of us were shattered by this, but at the same time we have to do our duty.”

It took eight days before Phaline’s body was recovered and Douglas had to make the agonizing decision to allow her to be buried in a mass grave, proper burials being virtually impossible in the chaos.

“I can’t do anything about it. And then I carried that guilt for 2 years,” she said in an interview.

Her trauma was broadly shared.  Earthquakes are rare in Haiti, but the poorest nation in the western hemisphere was ill prepared to deal with the 7.0 shock when it came.  No one really knows how many people died—estimates vary wildly from 230,000 to 316,000.  Nearly 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes.

International aid groups poured into the country to assist and now, on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, the recovery has been halting.  Some progress has been made, but much needs to be done.

“There is an enormous amount of work to be done,” said Boyd McBride, the national director of SOS Children’s Villages Canada, who spoke to Global News from Port-au-Prince.

READ MORE: Haiti marks 5th anniversary of earthquake

His charity has helped build or rebuild six schools throughout the nation. But McBride admits the challenges are still huge.

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“This is a very poor country and it means nothing works as well as we would like it to or might expect it to,” he said.

Haiti continues to suffer from chronic political instability, complicating the work of recovery. A report released this month by Amnesty International also highlighted human rights abuses.

The report found that more than 85,000 people remain housed in 123 camps for internally displaced people, where conditions are squalid. The report also documents six cases of forced evictions in the last two years, affecting more than 1,000 families.

“Many have been forced off the land with no due process and no kind of compensation,” said Amnesty International spokesman and University of Waterloo professor Andrew Thompson.

Amnesty’s report also suggests that, despite the best intentions, some of the international aid efforts have failed to deliver durable housing plans, calling them “a quick fix instead of long-term development solutions.”

Elvire Douglas said many Haitians are frustrated by the process, despite some improvements.  She moved to the Toronto area earlier this year, partly to live with her children, partly to take a break after years of unrelenting labour towards the cause of rebuilding her nation.  She told Global News that she plans to return for a visit later in January and hopes that the international community does not forget its promises to help rebuild Haiti.

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