February 3, 2010 / 3:03 PM / 9 years ago

Housing Haiti's homeless sparks debate as rains loom

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Sitting at a table under billowing bed sheets, David Delva tries to compile a list of around 12,000 people who now live in an open field below a hillside slum that collapsed in Haiti’s January 12 earthquake.

Earthquake survivors stand next to a makeshift tent at the Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince February 2, 2010. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

After fleeing their crumbled homes, local residents quickly built up a jumble of makeshift shelters out of corrugated tin, cardboard, plastic netting and sheets, similar to hundreds of squalid survivors’ camps scattered around Port-au-Prince.

With coming seasonal rains threatening to pile further misery on more than 700,000 homeless quake victims camped out in the shattered capital, Haiti’s government and its international aid partners are urgently debating how and where to shelter survivors while the recovery work goes ahead.

“If we do not get some tents, when the rains come we will be in big trouble,” said Delva, a former police chief who is now in charge of the security committee in the neighborhood previously known as the “Red Carpet” for its violence.

Struggling to get his impoverished country back on its feet after the catastrophic quake that killed up to 200,000 people, President Rene Preval’s government has appealed for aid groups to provide at least 200,000 tents to house the homeless.

Some ministers have said survivors will be relocated in temporary settlements outside the wrecked capital. But these tent cities have not materialized so far and international aid agencies say the focus should be on a longer-term solution.

“We don’t want to move, we need them to come here because we are already organized,” Delva said, neatly writing down residents’ names to receive handouts from an aid group.

As in many improvised camps born in the days and weeks after the earthquake, life is returning here, with people selling fruit and vegetables and children flying kites made of twigs and plastic bags. Volunteers patrol at night to guard against one of the community’s two major security worries: escaped prisoners and traditional “sorcerers,” who still strike fear in the minds of superstitious locals, Delva said.

The onset of the rainy season in March could threaten flash floods and further building collapses in the ruined city, and also increase the risk of diseases.

“If it rains it is a disaster. ... What we urgently need is tents,” Haitian Senator Wencesclass Lambert told Reuters.

“We need big ones, for schools for example, and small ones — 200,000 for the time being is reasonable,” he said.

Government ministers in charge of housing and food distribution have echoed the plea for tents.

But the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is spearheading U.S. government relief efforts in Haiti, says temporary tents can be expensive and impractical.


Instead, USAID is pushing a plan to reinforce the existing makeshift shelters with solid building materials and recycled rubble. USAID officials call it: “Thinking outside the tent.”

“We are playing catch-up here. A lot has already been done by those directly affected by the earthquake. We try to supplement and accelerate the process,” said a USAID official with experience of working in disasters around the world.

USAID says its proposals were well received in two meetings last week with President Preval.

“Past experience was such that the only thing anyone ever received was a tent, so that’s the only notion of emergency shelter they are aware of,” said the USAID official, who asked not to be named. He said it was possible to build semi-permanent housing for survivors in a matter of months.

But the Haitian government and some humanitarian workers worry that reconstruction might take too long and that tens of thousands might still be stranded out in the open when the season for Atlantic hurricanes — which have often mauled Haiti in the past — begins on June 1.

The U.S. government and aid groups are sending more than 10,000 rolls of durable plastic sheeting. Each roll can shelter a family of 10 while they begin rebuilding.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Many like 21-year-old Madeline Mylmond, who sleeps on the street front of her broken-down house with eight relatives, have nothing to cover them. Mylmond’s leg was gashed in the quake when a refrigerator fell on her and she has trouble keeping the dressing of her open wound clean.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders reports increased cases of diarrhea and skin rashes from the poor sanitary conditions of living outside. It warns that rains could bring more serious diseases like typhoid, measles or dengue.

From the early days of the disaster, there has been talk of building more orderly and cleaner survivors’ camps with basic services outside the city, but so far none have appeared and the government has no set date for them to be completed.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham

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