PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Rain drenched quake survivors in the tent camps of the Haitian capital on Thursday, a warning of fresh misery to come for the 1 million homeless living in the street one month after the devastating earthquake.
Although skies cleared by dawn, the overnight downpour and a noisy, early morning protest by several hundred Haitians at the U.N. mission headquarters brought into sharp focus simmering anger over the dire need for shelter in the poorest country in the Americas.
Friday marks one month since the January 12 magnitude 7 earthquake that shattered the capital Port-au-Prince and killed 212,000 people. Haiti is in a race against time to move survivors from the rudimentary homes they have fashioned out of plastic tarps, bedsheets and panels of corrugated zinc.
“They’ve been collecting money for Haiti around the world. Many millions have been collected. But we are still in misery,” Jean-Max Seraphin, 25, said as he stood near the sodden cotton bedsheets that serve as his home in downtown Port-au-Prince.
“If millions have been collected, why don’t they buy tents? Our children will be sick. We will be sick. And more people are going to die.”
The tropical rainy season could start within weeks and the Caribbean hurricane season begins on June 1, with the drainage canals of the capital choked with trash and earthquake rubble. Haiti is prone to flash floods because it has been virtually stripped of trees to make charcoal for cooking.
“When the rainy season starts, it’s not that people will get wet, but that they will get washed away,” said Alberto Wilde, country director of the U.S.-based Cooperative Housing Foundation, which is trying to provide temporary shelters for quake survivors.
Haiti remains on a knife edge nearly a month into one of the biggest disaster relief efforts in history, aid workers in the Haitian capital say.
Sanitation in the nearly 500 spontaneous encampments that have grown up around teeming, chaotic Port-au-Prince is woeful and health officials say they are seeing increasing cases of tetanus, dengue and other ailments.
The U.N. World Food Program said it is feeding about 2 million people, nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Distribution of sacks of rice and other staples is flowing more smoothly, but some residents are still complaining about shortages and aid is turning up on the black market.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said this week the government has “no clear vision” of how to move 1 million people into better temporary shelters, and said it could be a decade before Haiti can build 250,000 homes to replace those destroyed.
Port-au-Prince is clogged with concrete rubble and tent cities that have grown to bursting in open fields, along the sides of roads, on the edges of Toussaint Louverture International Airport, on a golf course, on sidewalks, in the courtyards of businesses and the yards of collapsed homes.
Fetid air envelops the flimsy shacks and tents that radiate out from the crumbling National Palace in the heart of the city, through the Champs de Mars, the main city square, and surrounding a statue of Henri Christophe, a leader of the slave rebellion that freed Haiti from French rule in 1804.
The discomfort is palpable in the camps. Many people have no toilets, tote water in buckets and bathe in the open.
While the rain could wash away some of the dust from the hundreds of collapsed buildings in the stricken city, it could also worsen a plague of mosquitoes. Workers have begun fumigating tent camps using portable fumigation units.
Cries of “help us, help us” rose from the camps as the rains fell before dawn on Thursday, residents said.
“Mosquitoes are eating us,” said Marjorie Louis, 34, who is living in a makeshift home of metal sheets and sleeping on a blanket on the pavement. “We need a place to stay, we need food, water. We have no doors and we are afraid at night.”
Aid groups say food distribution is getting better each day. “We’re doing the best we can to move as fast as we can,” said Lewis Lucke, chief of the U.S. relief effort.
But protests are a near-daily occurrence. Demonstrators blocked trucks passing the U.N. base in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.
The United States has 13,000 military personnel assigned to the massive international relief effort, some of them helping Haitian police and U.N. troops with keeping the peace.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Lieutenant General Ken Keen, commander of the U.S. military effort, said. “But we have a long way to go.”
Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Xavier Briand