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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Before the earth shook and turned their lives upside down, Rosena Dordor was like millions of poor Haitians, living with her family in a cramped home with no running water or sanitation, struggling to get by and fearing the next rent increase would force them out.
Today, nearly five years after the devastating 7.0 earthquake, Dordor has a new place to live with her husband and five children: a one-room shack with a plastic tarp for a roof and walls made of scrap metal and salvaged wood. It's perched on a cactus- and scrub-covered hillside, a long walk from the nearest source of water, and meals are cooked over fire pits.
Life is still a struggle in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but Dordor's new settlement does offer a measure of freedom because there is no landlord for her family or for the tens of thousands of other homesteaders who rushed to stake a claim in arid hills after the government expropriated a barren zone of 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) just north of Port-au-Prince following the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
"We love this place because we have made it our home with our own hands and hearts," Dordor said on a recent morning while shucking castor beans for a hair product she sells to neighbors. The area was initially only meant to house those stuck in tent shelters considered most at risk for floods or landslides, but it is growing so fast that U.S. State Department officials say the settlement could soon be considered Haiti's second largest city.
The country's complicated housing problems are perhaps the biggest drag on an uneven recovery that has nonetheless improved the lives of many poor Haitians, who say they prefer their living situations now compared to before the quake.
The disaster prompted a huge influx of international assistance, with governments and aid groups arriving to offer both immediate help and long-term development. One of the worst natural disasters of modern times, the quake killed an estimated 300,000 people, damaged or destroyed more than 300,000 buildings in densely packed Port-au-Prince and largely obliterated the government, toppling nearly all ministry buildings. Prisons and police stations crumbled into ruins.
Officials repeatedly said they would be "building back better," and in many ways they have made progress toward that goal.
The two-lane highway running nearly 100 miles from Port-au-Prince to Gonaives is a smooth river of asphalt, not the bone-jarring, off-road experience it was before the quake. There's a new international airport in Cap-Haitien, and hundreds of new schools. Several new hotels have opened, including known brands such as Best Western for the first time in decades. Direct foreign investment in Haiti reached $250 million last year, up from $4 million in 2001, according to the government.
Today, work crews in downtown Port-au-Prince are raising frames for new government offices. The rubble of the national palace has been removed. The wrecked historic Iron Market was rebuilt by Haiti's biggest employer, mobile phone company Digicel. The grim camps and shantytowns that once sheltered some 1.5 million people now hold about 80,000, and the government says they will all be moved out by mid-2015. The police force is being professionalized while growing from about 8,000 officers to roughly 12,000.
Yet the recovery has been uneven at best, plagued by poor planning and accusations of graft. And a worsening political standoff is one sign that progress since the disaster is tenuous.
President Michel Martelly, a former pop star who took office in May 2011, has been embroiled in a stalemate with lawmakers over parliamentary elections, delayed for over three years. Many fear a failure to resolve the gridlock could plunge the country back into familiar chaos.
Critics, meanwhile, say the construction of new slums is not an answer to Haiti's many problems.
"If the international community wants to pat itself on the back for building new Haitian shantytowns, with the collusion of the Martelly government, fine. I don't see evidence of sustainable change for the better," Amy Wilentz, author of "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti," and other works about the Caribbean nation, said via email.
Many poor Haitians say their lives have been complicated by a rising cost of living and lack of jobs, and they put the blame squarely on the government for failing to create opportunities.
"I love my country but it's still struggling thanks to our politicians," said Genyca Wilhelm, a former math teacher who hopes to find work by training to be a car mechanic. "Our international friends have been helping us, yes, but Haiti will always be Haiti. That is good news and bad news."
More than $12.4 billion in humanitarian and development aid and debt relief was pledged by more than 50 countries and international agencies, with at least 80 percent of that disbursed, according to the United Nations.
The U.S., the largest individual donor, provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid and committed an additional $2.7 billion for longer-term reconstruction and development, nearly two-thirds of which has been disbursed. American aid has been channeled toward rebuilding the infrastructure and economy, improving health care and law enforcement. It included developing an industrial park in northern Haiti as part of a strategy to encourage development outside Port-au-Prince.
Economic growth is what Haiti needs most, said Thomas C. Adams, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti.
The economy has had modest growth since 2011 and if the country can keep that pace for 25 years or so, it could become a middle-income country like neighboring Dominican Republic, Adams said.
"Whether they can continue depends on whether they can maintain stability and attract foreign investment, because foreign aid by itself is not enough to fix everything in Haiti," he said.
Some Haitians dared to dream that the aid flowing in after the disaster would make their lives dramatically better. Etienne Edeva, who lives a short drive from Dordor's homestead in a planned area known as Camp Corail, now says it was unrealistic to expect so much change for troubled Haiti.
"We're living in darkness here, but miserable or not we're getting by and making the best of it," said Edeva, who runs a bakery out of her home.
On the sunbaked hillsides north of the capital, Haitians are taking care of things on their own even as the government asks for U.S. help in planning the growing towns. Though poor, Haitian families here remain hopeful and, happy with the bit of progress they've made, they have no desire to return to the Port-au-Prince slums where landlords kept jacking up rents.
Modest businesses have opened in the settlements: barber shops, food stalls, lottery shops, hardware stores selling rebar and wood. Small scrapwood churches and enterprising Voodoo priests bring in the faithful. The wealthiest homesteaders have graduated from homes of tarp and timber to cinderblock.
Outside her hillside shack, Dordor says she has no plans to live anywhere else
"It's either God or death that will move me from here," she said. "In the name of God, we will build a concrete house here someday."
With her children gathered around her, a gust of wind shook the tarp ceiling of their crudely made but cherished home.
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd