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More Than a Million Remain with No Shelter in Haiti as Rains Loom

We will not be able to provide enough tents in time, says aid agency

by Peter Beaumont and Mustafa Khalili

PORT-AU-PRINCE - It was a flash flood, and a portent of the rains and devastation to come. The day after, Bernard Seraphin was collecting clothes for her three children from the remains of her house on Port-au-Prince's Route ­de Delmas 30.

Children peer from their tent after waking up in a makeshift camp for earthquake survivors in the Marassa neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010. Thousands are living in rudimentary shelters after Haiti's Jan. 12 powerful earthquake left the city in ruins. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano) A month after the earthquake wrecked her neighbourhood along with large parts of Port-au-Prince and ­surrounding towns, she is living in an emergency camp next to K-Dis supermarket, under a stretched cloth roof.

"The rain came in last night. We put a bed cover on four poles. We were completely drenched. The rainy season will be coming soon. We need some ­possibility to be dry."

The storm was brief and furious. But for the hundreds of thousands still ­living on the streets after the catastrophe, fears are now turning to what the next few months of torrential downpours will bring. There is a fear of disease.

But in the Haitian capital, and still more in the countryside, there is the simple imperative of viable shelter. Around the corner from where Seraphin lives, a road was blocked. Neighbours said the street had been made impassable to cars because people still living there were sleeping in the open. "We need shelters," an elderly man shouted angrily. "Tell them we need cover from the rain."

The issues confronting those without shelter - estimated by USAid at between 1.1 and 1.5 million people - were underlined last week by Care, a Christian ­charity, which warned that the international community will not be able to ­supply enough family tents before the rainy season begins in late-March.

Instead, the charity said, the ­rescue effort should concentrate on ­providing tarpaulins that can be used to ­construct waterproof shelters. "Shipping in enough family tents for all the people in need would take months," Care said in a statement. "Most people crammed into overcrowded camps are huddled under bed sheets strung between poles or sticks - hardly enough to block out the sun, but useless against the torrential downpours of Haiti's rainy season."

At the beginning of the month, only 272,000 out of those displaced had been provided with emergency shelters. While the relatively lucky ones have been given proper tents, the majority have been left to improvise.

The consequences in the countryside and the city have been different. In ­Port-au-Prince, the cloth covered ­shantytowns in places like Champ de Mars - with its statutes and ruined presidential palace - are visibly being hardened. By the day, new wooden shacks are being constructed in the city's main urban space, creating a more permanent encampment. In the countryside, thousands are essentially living in the wild.

In areas like Léogâne, an hour and a half's drive from the capital, the challenge for most is to find protection from the ­elements. Many are refugees from the city, with raw foods more easily available in the countryside.

The camps strung along the coastal road are often pathetic affairs, with walls made from ­netting, bed sheets and thin ­pieces of fabric - often so thin that those living inside are visible through the ­material.

Orelien Joseph, who sold alcohol in Port-au-Prince before the earthquake, lives in one camp in a sugar cane field close to the road. "What all the people want - what we all need - is proper shelter. ­People don't care about food, we can find that here - what we really care is about is being ­protected from the weather. This area has only poor people who fled from the city. Everybody here lost where they were living. I am living here with my wife and four children. What we need is a proper tent."

One of the luckier ones is Pierre Andre Janvier, 38, who lives in Léogâne. A maternity supervisor at the hospital, he has managed to build a one-room hut not far from the ruins of his home.

"You know, I've never asked the ­government for anything. I work for the government, and I didn't ask. They do very little for me. They took my name for a food distribution. But I haven't heard anything since. That was two weeks ago." Janvier's shelter contains some of the a few things he managed to rescue from his home, a sideboard with the glass still intact, and bedding. The floor has been made from breeze blocks salvaged from the house. Janvier is wearing the only shoes he could recover - one brown, the other black.

"[After a month] I'm angry now. I can't force the government to help. But all that I ask is for a tent and a piece of carpet. But the problem is that I don't know where to go and ask."

Back in Port-au-Prince, Seraphin is hopeful that she might be helped to find somewhere dry to sleep. "My home is not safe to sleep in. The foreigners said they would help us. That was a week ago. All we ask is somewhere where we can sleep. Somewhere we can be dry when the rains come."

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