2021 Haiti Earthquake: How we reached families affected the most

See how ShelterBox worked with partners to respond to the 2021 Haiti earthquake, despite the challenges.

14 January 2022

Man wearing hat holding a solar light in Haiti

When a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in August 2021, thousands of people lost their homes. But the nightmare wasn’t over yet. Tropical Storm Grace was approaching, and families had nowhere safe to turn…

Aftershocks were still sending people fleeing into the streets when the storm warnings went out. A powerful tropical storm was building, preparing to lash areas already affected by the earthquake.

Search and rescue teams fought to find survivors in the rubble before the weather closed in.

‘People faced an impossible choice: stay outside, exposed to the elements, or seek shelter in damaged, dangerous homes,’ says Alice Jefferson, who leads responses at ShelterBox.

For two days, at least 25cm of rain hammered the southwest of Haiti, followed by flash floods and mudslides.

Challenges to overcome

The combined force of the Haiti earthquake and storm destroyed an estimated 61,000 homes and damaged 77,000 more. People like Marcel (pictured below) had no choice but to build makeshift wooden tents. Marcel slept in his for about two weeks after the earthquake.

We knew that reaching remote communities would be extremely difficult – roads had been washed away, or split and scarred by the quake.

But this response was especially challenging. The country was still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, as well as Hurricane Matthew in 2016. A quarter of Haiti’s population live in extreme poverty, and the President’s assassination in July 2021 made an already fragile security situation more volatile.

A man and a boy outside a makeshift shelter in Haiti after the 2021 earthquake
Marcel pictured with his son outside their new shelter. The earthquake severely damaged Marcel’s home.


Working with partners to respond to the Haiti earthquake

We’d worked in similar rural areas near Les Cayes following Hurricane Matthew. We’d learned that communities were keen to leave group shelters and rebuild. However, they often lacked the materials because of the remoteness of the area and underlying poverty.

We were preparing to send our first response team – including volunteers – since the coronavirus pandemic severely limited international travel. But a local partnership was still essential to hear communities’ needs and reach vulnerable families.

Fortunately, following months of joint planning for a potential disaster in the Caribbean, we could partner swiftly with Habitat for Humanity Haiti. They’ve been working in the country since 1984.

From the outset, our partnership with Rotary was instrumental in supporting our response. Despite being an affected community, The Rotary Club of Les Cayes provided us with on the ground information in Haiti before we arrived in country. They helped us find accommodation in the rural area of Cayes, which otherwise would have been a real challenge due to the high demand from humanitarian agencies in the wake of the earthquake.

Aid on the move

As soon as news of the earthquake hit, plans began to take shape to move aid from ShelterBox’s nearest warehouse in Panama.

Getting aid into Haiti after this earthquake was difficult. Shipping times were long and hampered by a global shortage of shipping containers, as well as security risks at Haiti’s ports. So we worked closely with Airlink to charter two flights to rush 71 tons of cargo to Haiti, including tarpaulins and fixings, thermal blankets, solar lights, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and water carriers.

Despite the security challenges – on top of the usual post-disaster delays caused by blocked roads and busy ports – the partnerships forged and regional plans already in place meant we could deliver aid swiftly to Haiti. It takes time to get the right aid to the overlooked, often remote communities that ShelterBox prioritises. It’s testament to everyone’s teamwork that practical, useful, requested aid was in the right hands within weeks – and will set families up with a first step to longer-term solutions.

We chose shelter kits rather than tents, to help families stay on their home sites. This avoids the unplanned ‘tent cities’ that carry higher risks of poor sanitation, crime, and exploitation.

We also included a cash payment for families to buy materials or hire a labourer to clear rubble and help with construction. And it could cushion them financially from selling their aid items just to be able to eat.

‘In the wake of a disaster, needs are sharp and choices are tough. Some survivors don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond the next meal,’ explains Dave Ray, ShelterBox Horizons Lead who responded in Haiti. ‘Cash support was carefully planned to make sure people had emergency shelter, without it being eroded by other priorities.’

people carrying out training in the use of shelter materials after the Haiti earthquake
The ShelterBox team working with the Habitat for Humanity team to carry out shelter kit training, following the earthquake. Image credit: Habitat for Humanity International.


People power

ShelterBox has been working hard to respond through our trusted, dedicated partners since early 2020. But it’s clear that in-person responses will remain at our heart.

‘When you’re working in-country, that response gets all your focus. Local conversations happen more quickly, without the hurdles of time zones and waiting for emails,’ Dave adds.

Liberated from wobbly video connections, teams could share skills in person, such as how to strap down materials securely and strengthen shelters with bracing techniques.

Within weeks of the earthquake, families were beginning to rebuild with the materials, equipment, and information they needed. That’s thanks to supporters like you, who give generously throughout the year.

We don’t know what the next disaster will be, but with your support we know we will be ready. Please support our work today and help vulnerable communities recover and rebuild after disaster.


The article was originally written by Philly Byrde.
Top banner image: Milorme from Haiti.