Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rainy Season Not Yet Here

Haiti: Survivors Face New Fear

By MJ Smith
(Photo by John Carroll)

Port-au-Prince - The rain came in the middle of the night, turning the ground under tents made of blankets into mud, and all anyone could do at Haiti's sprawling homeless camps was be thankful it was not May.

They sought better cover or just stayed where they were. Some were resigned to not sleeping.

"You've got to stand up," said Markson Jean, a 24-year-old who lives with his three-year-old child in a massive camp at what used to be a country club golf course on a hilltop overlooking Port-au-Prince.

Haitians who survived the collapse of their homes in last month's devastating earthquake that killed more than 200 000 now fear something that may at first seem far less threatening: rain.

Downpours like the one early on Thursday have provided a reminder that the heavy rain season begins around May even as 1,2 million people made homeless by the quake remain living in camps or in the streets.

Besides the obvious concern that homeless camps will be consumed by mud, the rains also threaten to create a nightmare health scenario unless functioning latrines and drainage can be built in time.

The UN humanitarian coordinator, Kim Bolduc, said last week that the Champ de Mars camp near the destroyed National Palace, where about 16 000 people are living, had already "turned into an almost dangerous area" due to poor sanitation.

Aid workers are rushing out tarpaulins in a bid to provide everyone with some kind of shelter before the heavy rains, but officials admit that they will only provide basic protection even if they can be distributed to everyone in time.

They are also working to build latrines, but UN officials recently estimated that only five to 10 percent of what was needed had been completed.

"No matter what, though, it's not going to be pretty," Anthony Banbury, the deputy head of the UN mission here, recently told AFP.

Officials have chosen to focus on distributing tarpaulins instead of tents in part because they can reach more people faster.

"There is an impression out there that we will be able to turn around and build transitional shelter with framing and all that by the rainy season. Forget it," said Canadian Deputy Commanding General Nicolas Matern of the Haiti Joint Task Force.

"It ain't going to happen. We don't have the resources nor the time to do it."

The strategy is a hard one for many desperate Haitians to accept.

Some waiting in line recently to collect tarpaulins - including those who said they arrived at 3.00am for the distribution that began more than seven hours later - said the material was not nearly enough.

After Thursday's rain at the golf club camp, where a vast patchwork of makeshift tents housing thousands stretches downhill on what used to be bright green grass, Haitians dug small trenches to keep their tiny living spaces from flooding again.

They hung clothes from rope, dragged mattresses out to dry and washed clothes. Others waited in line for vaccinations.

"Water came in over the ground," said Clautide Berlice, 32, as she washed clothes in a small basin outside her shelter made of blankets and wood.

"It was really hard."

Ten people live in her shelter near the top of the hill at the golf course, where the view extends past collapsed buildings and ruined neighbourhoods toward the Caribbean Sea.

The camp is better off than others, with many tarpaulins being used as opposed to scrap material, though there is plenty of that as well.

Old signs were turned into walls, while thin tree branches were being nailed together to form frames.

Some said they had been provided with food rations such as rice. Others said they had yet to be given anything.

Elisoi Mista, 64, carried sticks for his makeshift tent in one hand and a machete in the other. He too said water had entered the shelter where his wife and two children live the night before.

His house collapsed in the quake, but he and his family were not inside at the time.

"God has given me a chance," he said.

"Because we are still alive." - Sapa-AFP

Published on the Web by IOL on 2010-02-19 11:12:35

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