All of which sounds fine to people in Jacmel, both old-timers and the newly returned alike, with one considerable stipulation: as long as the provincial cities have the services and amenities – like jobs – that drew people to Port-au-Prince in the first place.
“Everybody knows Port-au-Prince was too densely populated, it no longer offered many of the people the kind of living Haitians are comfortable with,” says Maxfarah Rocher, a neighborhood assistance coordinator with Caritas in Jacmel. “But to be serious about a decongestion of Port-au-Prince, there will have to be a good decentralization plan and good follow-through,” he adds. “If people find everything they need in Jacmel – job possibilities, good schools, universities – they’ll stay here.”
It’s easy to see why that would be. Jacmel, a small city of fewer than 200,000 people, hugs a coconut-palm-lined azure bay on Haiti’s southern coast. Many houses still boast the town’s early architecture of tall front-façade shutters and front stoops. Most public buildings are of the early 19th-century Caribbean architecture harking back to Haiti’s independence. The town square, named after Haiti’s George Washington, Toussaint Louverture, looks out over the sea.
But much is gone or severely damaged now. More than 7,000 houses were completely destroyed, according to officials. The first few streets of buildings along the seafront were completely flattened by the quake. The city hall has large cracks in its facade and is abandoned, its courtyard now a makeshift camp. And the city’s main hospital collapsed, replaced now by a tent hospital on its grounds.
Despite those conditions, people from Port-au-Prince still came to Jacmel after the quake, most of them people with family like Jean-Narcisse, who craved a sense of home. Assistance organizers say they have no idea of the size of the influx, except from anecdotal evidence.