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In Haiti, quake is sure to be followed by torrential rain

Aid groups say the flimsy tents many Haitians are staying in will be no match for flash floods that could follow rain in the rubble-choked city of Port-au-Prince.

February 10, 2010|By Joel Rubin
  • Esther Devariste, 21, and Ernest St. Pruce, 25, tie sticks together to make a small tent for their family at a camp in the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Esther Devariste, 21, and Ernest St. Pruce, 25, tie sticks together to make… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — Few things are certain in Jislene Brisson's life these days. The Haitian mother of four lost her husband and her house in the earthquake that ravaged this impoverished country a month ago. She has little money left and the emergency food deliveries that aid groups are still struggling to establish have yet to reach her and her children, she said.

In fact, there is perhaps only one thing Brisson can count on and it terrifies her: The rains are coming to Haiti and she is not prepared.

"I don't have a roof, I don't have anything," the 49-year-old said, slapping the backside of one hand into the palm of the other. "No one has come to talk to us about shelter. When the clouds start closing in, I'll be asking God. I'll be putting my arms up in the air and asking, 'What am I going to do with my children?' "

Next month or in April, a punishing rainy season is certain to arrive, bringing with it the daily downpours that swamp this downtrodden capital city. Then will come the hurricane season, which last year delivered a series of deadly storms.

With an estimated 1.1 million people left homeless by the quake, which killed an estimated 200,000, shelter experts are scrambling in a race against Mother Nature, fearing the rain could magnify the humanitarian crisis.

Some displaced Haitians have been taken in by family or friends. The majority, however, are still living in the streets or in densely packed tent camps that have popped up in squares and other open plots in Port-au-Prince and nearby communities.

Some have been lucky enough to get one of the durable, modern tents being handed out in a helter-skelter fashion by the U.S. military and other groups. Most have been left on their own to cobble together flimsy tents made of bedsheets, scraps of plastic and metal and branches hacked from trees.

Brisson and her children have set their makeshift shelter on a 6-foot-by-6-foot scratch of land on the edge of a camp where about 600 families are living, in the Delmas area of the city. The roof is a faded, peach-colored bedsheet and the walls are a mix of tapestries and bed linens. Inside, a jumble of thin blankets covers the dirt floor. A foot or two separates her tent from the next one.

"This is the front door," Brisson said with a rueful laugh, tugging on a blue-striped sheet while she sat outside doing laundry in large metal buckets.

These tent villages could easily become disaster zones, said Alberto Wilde, country director for CHF International, an aid group specializing in shelter issues. With many of the city's drainage canals and ravines blocked with the rubble of collapsed buildings, concern is deepening that the rains will result in deadly flash floods.

"Our fear is not that people are going to get wet when the rains come," Wilde said. "Our fear is that they will get swept away. We are running against time."

Disease is another likelihood when the skies open, with the downpours sure to leave the camps a fetid morass of mud and human waste.

Most of the camps lack sufficient latrines and could easily become breeding grounds for malaria, cholera and other deadly illnesses, medical experts say.

Wilde's group and more than a dozen others like it are trying to jump-start a push to move the huge homeless population into sturdier shelters. Haitian President Rene Preval recently gave the go-ahead for the shelter organizations to pursue a plan to build thousands of one-room structures with concrete floors, simple wooden frames, corrugated metal roofs and tarp walls.

Designed to last about three years, the houses are meant for single families. They come with a solar panel on the roof for electricity and can be erected in about four hours, Wilde said.

Wilde and other shelter experts acknowledged that Haitians may look to stay in these homes longer than intended and could, down the road, begin to rent them or sell them to others. But such concerns have to take a back seat to the more pressing issue of the coming rains.

"Right now, we must be thinking beyond these tents," said Tim Callaghan, head of USAID's emergency response team in Haiti, which is working closely with CHF International on the shelter issue.

Each house costs about $900 and aid groups hope that they will be able to hire local labor with donated funds to do the majority of the construction. Similar programs were implemented after the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 and the major earthquake in Peru in 2006.

Questions and challenges loom, however. One of the most pressing is where to build the houses. The aid groups hope some families will be able to build on the sites of their destroyed houses, but that may be impossible in many cases, as rubble clearance has been slow.

Shelter organizations are considering plans to build houses for about 10,000 families at each of several locations in and around Port-au-Prince. One hurdle is finding adequate areas the Haitian government is willing to cede.

And the tarp structures are built to withstand hurricanes of moderate strength, but not the major storms that sometimes pummel the island.

Perhaps most discouraging is that little of the wood needed to build the homes is available in Haiti and it remains unclear how quickly it will arrive because relief agencies are still focused on bringing in food, water and medical equipment.

Wilde's group had only enough wood and tarps to build fewer than 100 of the structures as of Saturday, he said. USAID has imported thousands of tarps, but without sufficient wood the structures cannot be built. And even when materials do arrive, few construction firms in Haiti have the capacity to build several hundred of the houses at a time, Wilde said.

"I feel like I have been delivered," said Malikan Dominique, a 51-year-old construction worker who had no means to rebuild his family's home after the earthquake and received a tarp house. "I am very grateful."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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