PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of homeless earthquake victims in Haiti jumped to the top of the country’s relief priorities on Thursday after heavy rain turned makeshift survivors’ camps into muddy quagmires.
Several hours of overnight rain, much of it torrential, battered the thousands of crude cloth tents and huts in the quake-shattered capital Port-au-Prince, turning the ground between them to mud and soaking their occupants.
It was the second downpour in a week. The prospect of more rains on the way has added urgency to the government’s appeal for tents and temporary living structures in which to house the homeless, estimated at more than 1 million following the catastrophic January 12 earthquake that hit the country.
The Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center, which groups the U.S. military, the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other foreign governments and aid groups in an international relief effort, said it was moving to address the critical shelter and sanitation issues before the rainy season begins in mid-March.
“The rain has been falling. When we get two, three days of it, what will this be like?” Jean Pierre Rosier said as he and other residents of a ramshackle survivors’ camp in the Delmas 33 neighborhood waded through ankle-deep muddy water.
Morning sunshine allowed the camp residents to dry some of their sodden clothes and possessions and hurriedly dig drainage ditches. But Haiti’s leaders have put providing adequate shelter for the quake homeless at the top of their requests to foreign governments and relief organizations.
“Every time I meet with foreign leaders and delegations, I tell them that is the most urgent need,” President Rene Preval told Reuters late on Wednesday.
“Now that we’ve attended to the wounded, taken away the dead, and we’re distributing food and water, the problem of shelter, the tents, is the most urgent,” he said.
The magnitude 7 earthquake that hammered the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state last month killed more than 212,000 people and wrecked much of the crowded capital, the country’s main economic and population center.
Economists from the Inter-American Development Bank have estimated damages from the quake could reach $14 billion, making it proportionately one of the most destructive natural disasters in modern times.
Haiti’s leaders say they have still not received enough tents, tarpaulins and temporary structures. Aid groups acknowledge the deficit but say the sheer scale of the disaster means they cannot immediately fill all the huge needs at once.
Canadian Army Brigadier General Nicolas Matern, who is attached to the U.S. military and is deputy commanding general for humanitarian assistance in Haiti, said the international relief operation has a plan to respond to the rains threat.
“We feel under the gun ... but we are moving as fast as we can,” he told reporters in a briefing.
Working with international aid partners, the U.S. military and United Nations plan to bring in tents, plastic sheeting and portable toilets as part of a multi-pronged strategy to provide better shelter to survivors and “decompress” affected zones of the city by starting to clear some of the rubble.
“We’re trying to give two tarpaulins per family so that at least they can hide under something during the rainy season. ... That is the best we can do given the magnitude of the problem,” Matern said.
He added there is enough rubble in the city to “fill 1,000 trucks for 1,000 days.”
USAID disaster relief coordinator Tim Callaghan said his organization planned to bring in 12,800 rolls of plastic sheeting by February 27, and the international relief operation planned to supply 4,500 portable toilets as well.
Military engineers also plan to supervise drainage to prevent flash floods from causing another humanitarian disaster.
In some areas, neat encampments of uniform foreign-provided tents have begun to sprout but the majority of the survivors’ camps are still sprawling squalid affairs, with most of the crude shelters hastily constructed from any scrap of fabric or plastic the occupants have been able to lay hands on.
They are packed together haphazardly, often close to raw open sewers and many lacking even basic sanitation.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Will Dunham