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Rainy season threatens earthquake-battered Haiti

With many displaced people still living in tent camps, floodwaters could wash away what the temblor didn't destroy.

April 18, 2010|By Joe Mozingo
  • The first group of residents from the Petionville Club camp were bused to the dust-blown Corail Cesselesse campsite northwest of Port-au-Prince on April 10.
The first group of residents from the Petionville Club camp were bused to… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Every afternoon the clouds pile up on the high ridges above this collapsed city and the breeze descends with a telltale earthy smell. The rain usually waits until dark, when short but spectacular bursts deluge random bits of the capital and unleash torrents of rock and gray mud.

The rainy season is bearing down, and Haiti is not ready.

Three months after the earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, more than 2.1 million Haitians are still living in tents and under tarps, many on dangerous hillsides and tidal flats.

Ernst Y'Voyelle, 38, studies those clouds warily from his hut clinging to the edge of a ravine in a hillside tent camp where as many as 50,000 people live.

"There's going to be a lot of people buried here," he said.

A short rain the night before had turned his patch of loose dirt into a sticky slop. Half an inch of clay clung to his loafers.

Aid workers had been talking about moving people out of dangerous spots like this one for weeks, but only last weekend did they begin, with 62 people.

Y'Voyelle was not one of them.

Nor was Saluido Desauguste. He was sleeping the other night when water poured out from a drainage ditch near his tent. He had time only to get himself and his two children out before the water swept away the tent and all the possessions he had left after the earthquake took everything else.

A tall man with ropy muscles, he dug through the muck the next morning looking for anything that might be salvaged. He found only his little girl's purple sandal.

Certainly much has been done in Haiti. The bodies in the streets were buried. Residents in Port-au-Prince have more access to medical care than they have had in decades. Aid groups are still distributing food and water. And although fallen buildings remain in stratified heaps of concrete and great knots of rebar, excavators are picking away at them, clearing out clogged drainage canals and shoring up low areas prone to flooding.

But everyone agrees that the next steps require a coordinated plan to get people into safer camps and, ultimately, housing. Humanitarian groups and the government have been talking about this since a few days after the quake, and set a target date of April 15 to relocate those in the most danger. That deadline has come and gone.

There is a feeling that the temporary is settling into the permanent. Tin and wood are slowly transforming tent camps into shantytowns, and trails are emerging on the heaps of shattered concrete as if they were part of the natural topography.

Claire Basiler, 80, still can't go beyond the 4-foot-wide alley behind her home on Rue Champs Mars downtown because she is too feeble to climb over 20 feet of rubble.

"I haven't left once since the earthquake," she said.

She complained that the rainwater has no way to get out either, so people have to carry it out with buckets. Mosquitoes are breeding and malaria is a growing concern.

Her neighbor Lefils Rochene, 57, can walk out, but his livelihood is trapped there. He used to sell furniture in his storefront business across the street. The earthquake destroyed the store, but spared his storage room on the alley. Several days ago he dragged an antique sofa, two old wing chairs and some office chairs onto the ruins of the Hotel Air Fresh.

"I'm just displaying it so people will know I'm still here," he said.

But few are shopping. Many middle-class people who once could afford such things are living in tent camps.

In a sprawling camp on the Petionville Club golf course, engineers have identified 7,500 people to be moved immediately. By Friday, 1,629 had been relocated.

That camp is getting far more attention than any of the more than 1,300 others in Haiti -- its manager is the actor Sean Penn, who co-founded a relief organization doing work in the country. Work crews are scrambling to shore up a hillside with sandbags and dig drainage.

Nearby in a lush canyon called La Vallee de Bourdon on a recent day, no one was scrambling to help the residents of a fallen shantytown. After the quake, residents simply moved to open land next door. They cut trees and brush, dug shelves in an escarpment and used the sticks they gathered to hold up tarps. Some are on the edge of a cliff; some are on a dry river bottom.

The International Organization of Migration says 8,000 people live in this valley, 2,500 of them in danger.

But in this particular bend of the river, the only one pushing them to get out was the landowner.

"I come every day to give them pressure," he said. He declined to give his name, but the people there call him Fabrino. "It's been three months. Now it's time to go."

Yeye Luiso, 29, had nowhere to go but to another hillside in the canyon. He didn't understand why the landowner couldn't wait.

"He's threatening that he's going to come with a staff of people to beat us up and tear down our houses and force us out," he said.

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