By FRANCES ROBLES, Miami Herald
Up to a third of Haiti’s 1.3 million `homeless’ earthquake survivors have undamaged houses — and experts are stumped on how to get them back indoors.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kettely Achedou’s three-bedroom house in Port-au-Prince’s Nazon neighborhood, yet the 39-year-old middle-class businesswoman sleeps outside on a mat.
Since the devastating Jan. 12 quake, she’s afraid to go into her house. When it rains, she spends the night on her feet, huddled under an awning. Her family and neighbors do the same, having converted their street into a block-long campsite of pitched tents and mattresses. Yet not a single house there collapsed in the quake.
“Two years from now, if the earthquake hasn’t killed me, you will find me right here in front of my house,” Achedou said.
About 1.3 million people are living outdoors in sprawling camps or in front of their houses since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and toppled thousands of buildings. More than 100 donors will meet at the United Nations on Wednesday to discuss raising $11.5 billion for short-term reconstruction, including replacement housing.
Experts say 300,000 to 400,000 of Haiti’s homeless quake survivors have undamaged houses — and show no signs of going back indoors. They, like Achedou, are simply too afraid to go back inside.
“If you had been here and seen how the concrete shook, you would never sleep inside under concrete again,” said Achedou’s 14-year-old daughter Claire, who ran from the house naked during the January quake.
As rainy season approaches and weeks stretch into months, the same experts who had publicly advised Haitians to sleep outside are now saying time has come to go back indoors. The Haitian government, aided by the U.S. military, launched an ambitious project to evaluate every standing house before hurricane season.
But even as more and more houses are tagged “green” for safe, more and more people are sleeping under the stars. Undamaged hospitals are empty. The public hospital’s maternity ward is desolate and unused as women give birth outside in tents and even pickup trucks. The emergency room shows not a single cracked wall, yet Haitian doctors refuse to go inside.
So far, U.S.-trained engineers have surveyed 10,000 homes.
“More than 40 percent of them are safe, but empty,” said U.S. military engineer Col. Roberto Cintrón, who oversees U.S. military engineers and contractors on the joint task force here. “The other day I met a lady with three small children whose family was sleeping in two tents, and her house was perfectly fine. I told her: `What if I come and I spend the night here? Would you go inside then?’
“She said: `The day you sleep here, the earthquake would not happen. It would happen the next day.’ ”
Cintrón said experts hope to evaluate 100,000 homes by May. If 40 percent of those residents would go back home, it could alleviate overcrowding in sprawling camps, where rains have begun to wreak havoc.
`NEED TO GET BACK’
“They absolutely need to get back into their homes,” said Reginald DesRoches, a Civil and Environmental Engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
“One thing we found is that people did not trust Haitian engineers. They’d say: `This is the same person who built my house. Why should I trust him when he tells me that it’s safe to be back inside?’ ”
DesRoches, who is Haitian-American, spent nine days in Haiti helping inspect major buildings such as schools, warehouses and hospitals.
“In some cases, they were completely safe,” he said. “There are 30- to 50-bed hospitals that have no damage that are empty. People are really afraid.”
Claude Prepetit, the leading engineer at the Haitian Mines and Energy bureau, acknowledges that he has been on radio stations telling people to sleep outdoors.
The U.S. Geological Survey had estimated a 3 percent chance of another 7.0 earthquake, and recommended people sleep outdoors until Wednesday.
Prepetit said he will sleep outside until April, but is unwilling to take on the responsibility of telling everyone else to do the same.
“The decision to go back inside is a personal decision,” he said. “There are aftershocks, and no one can tell when they will stop. Even if people do not feel it, we have tools that show the earth is still moving. There are houses that are not damaged, but that doesn’t mean that another earthquake will not topple them.”
Haiti, he said, is still at risk for quakes as large as a 6 on the Richter scale, so people should stay outside until an engineer declares their home safe.
“Imagine that the government says it’s OK to go back home and then there’s another earthquake,” he said. “Who will the people blame?”
April rains, he said, will force people to go back inside when they realize their camps are more dangerous than their houses.
USGS senior science advisor David Applegate said fear of returning indoors is a common phenomenon, but not to the extent seen in Haiti.
“This is the fourth-deadliest earthquake we’ve ever had, and the deadliest in the hemisphere,” he said. “You can’t really argue with people who are afraid. People are traumatized, even if going back home is their best option.”
STILL AT RISK
Tim Dixon, a geologist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said Haiti is still at risk, but decades down the road. Rather than focus on immediate threats, Haitians need to focus on bringing structures up to international seismic code.
“Most experts agree that the chances of a major aftershock are much reduced,” Dixon said. “If I were living in Haiti and my building had a green tag, I would go live in it — but I’d make plans for bringing it up to code in the next year to 18 months.”
Yet even USGS advisories say Haiti stands a 95 percent chance of enduring an earthquake that measures 5.0 on the Richter scale in the next year. A quake that strong would be “widely felt” and “has the potential to cause additional damage, particularly to vulnerable, already damaged structures,” according to the USGS.
“Nobody can ever tell us we are completely safe,” said Wilner Demevil Emil, who sleeps outside his undamaged apartment building with dozens of neighbors. “Being outside is hard, but death and being under rubble are no good, either.”
He said the magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile last month only steeled his reserves to confront the elements outside.
Some people insist they’ll go back when the experts say it is safe, but argue that the government is taking too long to do inspections. DesRoches agrees that not enough engineers are working on the ground.
“There are some brave guys who sleep inside, but as soon as they hear any kind of noise, they go running,” said Leafard Bellevue, 35, an unemployed electrician who is anxious for an engineer to visit his concrete home.
“I am only brave in the daytime.”
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