Many say Haiti unprepared for hurricane season
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
The Miami Herald, Posted on Mon, May. 31, 2010
Behind the once exclusive gates of this quake-ravaged nation's only golf course, thousands of sandbags cut a path up and down steep hills, while a new road now doubles as an emergency evacuation route.
But for every Petionville Golf Club where gravel and sandbags have been laid to save lives in case of dangerous flooding, there are dozens of camps like Marassa 14, where nothing has been done to prepare for hurricane season. Hundreds of blue and white tarp-covered shacks crowd a low-lying, flood-prone ravine.
``They want us to leave, but we will not leave here,'' said Adrienne Francois, 60, among the 3,000 residents of the camp near Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside the capital. ``We are at the mercy of God. We can leave, and still end up under tarps.''
With the official start of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season Tuesday, a disaster-prone Haiti is far from ready for what meteorologists predict will be a heightened storm season with at least 15 named storms.
Some 1.5 million homeless earthquake victims remain under tents and tarps in at least 1,200 camps across the country. Roads remain cluttered with rubble. The Haitian government has designated only two new emergency relocation camps. And few hurricane-resistant transitional houses have been built as the government and international aid groups continue to wrestle with land issues: how to get more of it, how to put up temporary houses and how to get camp dwellers with safe homes to return, or seek higher ground
``When we first started this operation . . . we hoped that we would be able to build a significant number of transitional shelters by the start of the hurricane season,'' said Alex Wynter of the International Federation of Red Cross. ``We've made up our minds that we are going to have to face the emergency or the potential emergency of the rainy season and the hurricane season in the camps.''
Initially, the U.S. military designated nine camps, including the Petionville Golf Club, as priorities because some 29,000 people in them were considered most at risk of being washed away with flash floods and landslides.
Since then, the International Organization for Migration has determined that engineers must inspect 120 camps in Port-au-Prince because of concerns about flooding, landslides or standing water from heavy rains. The inspections will determine the measures needed to reinforce the camps, said Shuan Scales, the agency's camp planner.
At the same time, IOM has removed more than 263,000 cubic meters of garbage and sludge from more than six miles of storm drains -- some haven't been cleaned in 15 years -- to reduce the risk of flooding in the capital.
But while new drainage ditches, cleaner canals and even better pre-positioning of relief supplies by the World Food Program around the country will help reduce the loss of lives, what's desperately needed is available suitable land to relocate camp dwellers, say frustrated aid groups.
For weeks, President René Préval has been leading 7 a.m. discussions with key government officials and humanitarian aid groups about how to encourage those with homes to return. The challenge for the government is that as squalid as the conditions are in the camps, many there are reluctant to leave because they are jobless renters who do not own their own homes.
The discussions continue and a lot of it is centered around the Champs de Mars. The population at the downtown Port-au-Prince public square is officially at 25,849, according to the IOM. Others put it as high as 60,000 in the months since the Jan. 12 quake, which killed a government-estimated 300,000 people.
Dozens of tents that were installed several miles away near the old army airport to relocate residents living on the Champs de Mars remain empty, as do many of the homes in the nearby Turgeau neighborhood. Assessments by U.S. army engineers determined that 40 percent of the homes in Turgeau, where many of the initial residents on the Champs de Mars lived, were safe.
But the sprawling downtown camp site in front of the ruined presidential palace is not the only pressing concern.
Haiti and international aid agency officials are working on the logistics and financing for hurricane-resistant shelters that can be quickly built and hold up to 800 people. The shelters are desperately needed for the flood-prone city of Leogane, for example, which lost more than 80 percent of its housing in the quake.
``The question is who can finance them? And where can we put them?'' said Thomas Pitaud, a technical specialist with the United Nations Development Program.
For two months, UNDP has been holding workshops with Haitian disaster risk officials throughout Haiti to discuss different storm scenarios and remapping dozens of communities to determine new evacuation routes and water patterns.
``The same rain that is killing 200 people in Haiti is not killing anybody in Cuba,'' said Bruno Lemarquis, UNDP director for Haiti. ``It's not the disaster that kills. It's the way a country or its people are prepared.''
On Tuesday, former President Bill Clinton, co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, will visit Leogane to raise awareness of the need for hurricane-resistant shelters. His visit comes a day after heavy downpour turned major Port-au-Prince streets into rivers of dirty water, flooding some camps.
Last month, 500 families were relocated from a steep valley to a new camp in the city of Tabarre, while almost 2,000 families were relocated mostly from the Petionville golf course to Corail Cesselesse. Both sites were designated by the Haitian government for quake victims.
But the speed in which the government selected Corail angered some aid groups who say they had just one week to prepare the site. Some continue to worry about its reliability despite mitigation efforts, which include gravel to prevent standing water and a ditch around the perimeter. They also question whether the light-weight tents provided by World Vision will withstand winds, and worry about the thousands of squatters who have now surrounded the camp with shanties.
``The tents provided by World Vision in Corail were not designed to be permanent shelter for the families there, and, in fact, no tent or tarp is able to withstand that type of weather,'' said Laura Blank of World Vision. ``Because aid agencies were given less than a week to prepare the site, the tents were, and continue to be, the best temporary solution.''
World Vision, Oxfam and others say the government needs to stop dragging its feet and quickly decide how to move forward, saying Corail as is, remains a temporary solution.
``Why did we pick a flood plane in the middle of the dessert for this site? We know there is a crunch on land but really? We know it probably could have been done better,'' said Julie Schindall of Oxfam. ``There wasn't adequate coordination and planning.''
But if Corail remains worrisome for some, Petionville Golf Club is a model of what can be done.
During a recent tour, U.S. disaster experts pointed out several measures taken to secure the camp from flooding. Employing camp residents, experts laid sandbags, dug ditches and built a fence around a ravine to protect children. They also relocated 4,000 people living in the most at-risk area of the camp.
``This is creating jobs while at the same time saving lives,'' said Chris Milligan, U.S. response coordinator for Haiti.
Despite the measures, Milligan told Congress recently that much work remains. ``We have made progress, but we still are not there yet,'' he said. ``We are still preparing.''
No shelter from the storm for Haiti quake victims
By Ben Fox, Associated Press, May 31, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A hurricane season predicted to be one of the wettest on record opens Tuesday in the Caribbean, where hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake victims have only tarps or fraying tents to protect them in a major storm.
The Haitian government, which had five months to prepare, says it's still working on emergency and evacuation plans. But it is unclear where people will go with many churches, schools and other potential shelters toppled by the quake.
Since the Jan. 12 earthquake killed up to 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless, there has been little progress on clearing rubble so people can return to their neighborhoods or building sturdier shelters.
Dr. Jean Pape, one of the country's most prominent public health experts, estimates that only 1 percent of the masses stuck in dangerous flood zones have been relocated.
"There's no give here. Time is just running out," said Mark L. Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. "There's no question that large numbers, tens of thousands, are going to be in situations of misery when the rains come."
Already, the moderate spring rains that drench Port-au-Prince almost daily leave camp residents up to their knees in putrid water.
Claudia Toussaint, a 24-year-old camped near a golf course, dug a shallow channel in the dirt under her tarp in a futile effort to keep water away from her mattress.
"When it rains, we don't have anywhere to go, we don't have anywhere to sleep," she said. "We just get soaked."
The problem goes beyond more misery in about 1,200 temporary camps. Vast numbers of people are exposed to disease-carrying mosquitoes. Serious flooding could cause mass casualties even with thousands of aid workers and U.N. peacekeepers present.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted as many as 23 named tropical storms, which would make this season one of the more active on record. The quake has forced Haiti to update its storm contingency plans, said Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, including positioning emergency food and equipment.
A response team has been set up to deal with rain emergencies in camps.
"We don't need a hurricane to have problems in Haiti, we just need three or four days of continuous rain to have serious problems," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But Bellerive couldn't say how the plans are being updated. And he said the country's condition remains "fragile," even though aid groups and government officials have said since the quake that flooding is a major looming disaster.
The Atlantic storm season always poses a risk in mountainous Haiti. Tropical Storm Jeanne killed nearly 3,000 people in 2004, and a series of 2008 storms killed 800 — mostly in the country's central region north of Port-au-Prince.
The capital city rarely gets a direct hit; it is protected by the mountains that separate Haiti from the Dominican Republic. But even modest storms are deadly in this deforested nation where entire cities are routinely plunged under water.
The international community and private aid groups have pledged or delivered $3.1 billion to help Haiti after the earthquake and are promising nearly $10 billion more for reconstruction.
But so far, the government has relocated only about 7,000 vulnerable people to two safer camps.
The relocation is slow because the crippled government doesn't have enough money to complete a job that includes not just setting up new tents, but providing work, schools and services.
"You can't just move people to a new location and say 'take care of your life.'" said Pape, director of the GHESKIO clinic.
The Salvation Army has started building two-room shelters for 600 families in the southern town of Jacmel despite bureaucratic delays in getting the material through Haiti's ports.
The cement-secured wooden supports are designed to withstand winds of up to 30 mph, and the raised wooden floors to prevent Haitians from risking disease by using water flowing through their homes for hygiene and cooking. They expect to complete the structures within a month using Haitian labor.
Protesters have criticized President Rene Preval for a lack of progress in reconstruction. Schneider says all involved need to move faster.
"It's not that people are doing things that are wrong," he said. "It's that people need to do the things that they are doing faster."
Magdaline Oscar lives with her husband and 6-year-old son in a trash-strewn road that leads to the capital's main garbage dump. She showed visitors the murky water that pools under her tent and splashes through its torn sides. During storms, they flee to a neighbor's shelter, though many of the other tents in their encampment are also now damaged after five months of use.
"The wind and the water is destroying them," said the 26-year-old. "I don't think it will last much longer."
Elsewhere, people are taking a do-it-yourself approach — adding corrugated steel and plywood to homes first constructed from a few bed sheets and plastic tarps. Leon Louis was confident about his prospects as he set up a shanty in the Champs de Mars, the capital's central plaza.
"The rain might fall, but we'll be in a stable place," Louis said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz and Yesica Fisch contributed to this report.