Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti Unprepared for Hurricanes

By Jacqueline Charles, McClatchy Newspapers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Behind the once-exclusive gates of this quake-ravaged nation’s only golf course, thousands of sandbags cut a path up and down steep hills, while a new road now doubles as an emergency evacuation route.

But for every location where gravel and sandbags have been laid to save lives in case of dangerous flooding, there are dozens of camps like Marassa 14, where nothing has been done to prepare for hurricane season. Hundreds of blue and white tarp-covered shacks crowd a low-lying, flood-prone ravine.

“They want us to leave, but we will not leave here,” said Adrienne Francois, 60, among the 3,000 residents of the camp near Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside the capital. “We are at the mercy of God. We can leave, and still end up under tarps.”

Tuesday was the official start of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, and a disaster-prone Haiti is far from ready for what meteorologists predict will be a heightened storm season with at least 15 named storms.

Some 1.5 million homeless earthquake victims remain under tents and tarps in at least 1,200 camps across the country. Roads remain cluttered with rubble. The Haitian government has designated only two new emergency relocation camps. And few hurricane-resistant transitional houses have been built as the government and international aid groups continue to wrestle with land issues: how to get more of it, how to put up temporary houses, and how to get camp dwellers with safe homes to return or seek higher ground.

“When we first started this operation … we hoped that we would be able to build a significant number of transitional shelters by the start of the hurricane season,” said Alex Wynter of the International Federation of Red Cross. “We’ve made up our minds that we are going to have to face the emergency or the potential emergency of the rainy season and the hurricane season in the camps.”

Initially, the U.S. military designated nine camps, including the Petionville Golf Club, as priorities because some 29,000 people in them were considered most at risk of being washed away with flash floods and landslides.

Since then, the International Organization for Migration has determined that engineers must inspect 120 camps in Port-au-Prince because of concerns about flooding, landslides or standing water from heavy rains. The inspections will determine the measures needed to reinforce the camps, said Shuan Scales, the agency’s camp planner.

At the same time, the International Organization for Migration has removed more than 263,000 cubic meters of garbage and sludge from more than six miles of storm drains — some haven’t been cleaned in 15 years — to reduce the risk of flooding in the capital.

But while new drainage ditches, cleaner canals and even better pre-positioning of relief supplies by the World Food Program around the country will help reduce the loss of lives, what’s desperately needed is available suitable land to relocate camp dwellers, said frustrated aid groups.

For weeks, President Rene Preval has been leading 7 a.m. discussions with key government officials and humanitarian aid groups about how to encourage those with homes to return. The challenge for the government is that as squalid as the conditions are in the camps, many there are reluctant to leave because they are jobless renters who do not own their own homes.

The discussions continue and a lot of it is centered on the Champs de Mars. The population at the downtown Port-au-Prince public square is officially at 25,849, according to the International Organization for Migration. Others put it as high as 60,000 in the months since the Jan. 12 quake, which killed a government-estimated 300,000 people.

Dozens of tents that were installed several miles away near the old army airport to relocate residents living on the Champs de Mars remain empty, as do many of the homes in the nearby Turgeau neighborhood. Assessments by U.S. army engineers determined that 40 percent of the homes in Turgeau, where many of the initial residents on the Champs de Mars lived, were safe.

But the sprawling downtown camp in front of the ruined presidential palace is not the only pressing concern.

Haiti and international aid agency officials are working on the logistics and financing for hurricane-resistant shelters that can be quickly built and hold up to 800 people. The shelters are desperately needed for the flood-prone city of Leogane, for example, which lost more than 80 percent of its housing in the quake.

“The question is who can finance them? And where can we put them?” said Thomas Pitaud, a technical specialist with the United Nations Development Program.

For two months, the U.N. program has been holding workshops with Haitian disaster risk officials to discuss different storm scenarios and remapping dozens of communities to determine new evacuation routes and water patterns.

On Tuesday, former president Bill Clinton, co-chairman of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, visited Leogane to raise awareness of the need for hurricane-resistant shelters. Clinton said he wasn’t happy with the progress so far but was pleased with efforts to provide temporary shelter. Clinton pledged $2 million from his foundation for recovery, including $1 million for hurricane safety.

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