By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Washington Post Staff Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Mud invades every inch of the saggy handmade tent Mimose Pierre-Louis now calls home.
It spatters the pink bedsheet that serves as her wall, crawls up the acacia branch that plays the role of wobbly tent pole and forms the floor she lies on. Near one end of the tent, a steep slope leads several hundred yards up to the Petionville Club, where elites once played tennis and luxuriated poolside with rum sours. A foot from the other, the earth drops 15 feet into a stinking canal turned open sewer since the Jan. 12 earthquake that left more than 1 million Haitians homeless.
Here in Port-au-Prince’s largest encampment, a cruelly canted hillside inhabited by as many 70,000 people, Pierre-Louis lives on the edge as the ferocity of Haiti’s April-May rainy season approaches.
Confronted with the challenge of destructive rains and floods, international relief agencies have launched an ambitious logistical operation aimed at protecting the Pierre-Louises of this wrecked city. They hope to carve new drainage outlets in the most vulnerable of the hundreds of camps in this city by mid-April and to relocate people living in the most precariously perched tents.
The consequences of failure would be devastating, Haitian and international officials say: another catastrophe — 37,000 dead in floods and mudslides — in a country traumatized by more than 200,000 earthquake deaths.
“The rainy season is a freight train headed right at us,” said Anthony Banbury, who until recently was the acting second-in-command at the U.N. mission in Port-au-Prince. “We’re in a race against time, and we can’t lose a day.”
Just the beginning
Banbury’s race starts with a sprint and ends as a marathon. The sprint happens between now and April 15 — the expected start of heavy rains — when crews will dredge the new canals and build retaining walls. They will also attempt to find new refuge for 9,000 people whose tents are so imperiled by flash floods that they cannot be saved by the engineering work.
But that’s just the beginning. Eventually, over the course of months, international officials hope to relocate at least 150,000 people living in unacceptably muddy camps wedged into ravines and on steep hillsides that could become breeding grounds for disease. (Several hundred thousand more are expected to find shelter on their own outside the camps, in the homes of friends and relatives or in semi-permanent structures near their homes.)
Banbury, a disaster veteran, said the challenges here “far exceed” anything he’s seen.
Even figuring out how many people in the camps legitimately need to be relocated has become a complex exercise. Thousands are thought to have set up tents in camps to collect food and water during the day, even though their homes are habitable. And some quake victims have set up multiple tents — say, a husband in one, a wife in another and their children in a third — in order to collect more supplies, relief officials say.
Hillsides made bald by years of deforestation in Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country act as giant sluices, funneling torrents of water in even small storms. On the steep hillside below the Petionville Club, yesterday’s mud becomes today’s hard-packed claylike surface, perfect to channel water.
In post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, rainstorms — including several brief ones over the past week — lift refuse out of piles and spread it across streets and camps. With the ooze — an awful melange of rotting fruit, chicken bones and human waste — comes a smell that brings to mind spoiled milk and gangrenous wounds.
On March 18, Port-au-Prince got a preview of what is to come when a short downpour collapsed a school tent, streets became rivers with floating garbage islands, and water rose to knee level in the camps. Pierre-Louis managed to save her rickety tent, but the coursing water swept away everything else: her charcoal stove, 12 spoons, two pots, a couple of buckets and a bag of clothes. She sank to her knees and “asked God to change my life.”
Pierre-Louis — who earned the equivalent of $1.50 a day making shirts before the quake but is jobless now — has found a comfort zone despite the grim conditions. Her friend Carline Calipso — whose 2-year-old daughter died in the quake — occupies the next tent, and two tents down another friend from her Delmas neighborhood, Louidie Desauguste, lives with his wife and 10 children between the ages of 9 and 29.
The three friends crystallize the conflicting emotions of the moment. Desauguste would move if offered a safe place, he said, but “I survived the earthquake; I’m not going to some new place to die.” Calipso dreams of escaping the camp before the water “takes me away,” but worries that she would struggle to restart her sidewalk candy stand in a place where she doesn’t know anyone. In one breath, Pierre-Louis said she wants to leave, and soon; in the next, she said she doesn’t want to leave her family and friends.
And therein lies the problem: The main new settlement being built is far from the city center in a neighborhood called Tabarre.
“The government is going to have big problems if they come here and just try to tell people to leave,” said Jean Salnove Pompee, director of a community group that works in Pierre-Louis’s camp.
Many of the camps are situated on private land and are tolerated for now by the owners, or they are on symbolically important public spaces. Haitian officials want to clear a camp in front of the prime minister’s office and another in the city center along the Champ de Mars, a teeming avenue across from the once-graceful National Palace, which collapsed during the quake.
Semi-permanent structures crafted from scavenged wood line the street, and their owners show little inclination to budge. International officials are less concerned about this camp because it sits on paved ground, and the U.N.’s Banbury said “no one will be forced out at the point of a gun.” But Haitians have begun to issue veiled threats.
“We abide by the law,” Charles Clermont, head of the Haitian presidential relocation task force, said in an interview. “We know the concept is, you can’t force someone to go somewhere. But you can force someone to leave a place.”
In an interview, Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission here, said that in the rush to save lives, it will be almost impossible to achieve international standards of 36 square meters per person for the first group of people targeted for relocation. Internally, there has been furious debate with humanitarian officials. Mulet hopes to build at least one large solid structure of wood or metal in each of the new settlements, where people could cluster if their tents are ripped apart by winds and rain.
“It would be like the Middle Ages, with people going to a fortress, a chateau or a church when the Huns come,” he said at a small office near the airport. He works there because the U.N. headquarters here collapsed in the quake.
Earth movers now skitter across the tract of land on the city’s edge where Mulet’s disaster-zone equivalent of a chateau will be erected. Two neighbors were injured there recently during a shootout after someone fired bullets at work crews, underlying the tensions associated with almost any major initiative here.
Clermont, the Haitian relocation adviser, worries that the temporary settlements will become permanent slums and that, in solving one crisis, others will be created. He invokes a Haitian saying: “Don’t escape from the river and fall into the bottom of the sea.”
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