By Barbara Crossette, United Nations Association of the United States of America World Bulletin
June 23, 2010
June 23 — Early this month, when long-range weather forecasts predicted a potentially active Atlantic hurricane season, a chilling thought swept over people trying to help Haitians still homeless and traumatized after the catastrophic earthquake that struck in January. Is Haiti’s year of tragedy over, or was the quake — the strongest in more than 200 years — just the beginning?
About 200,000 people died in the earthquake. Thousands of people have also been killed in hurricanes in Haiti since 1998, when a storm named George killed hundreds and, by most estimates, destroyed more than three-quarters of the country’s crops; and later, in 2004, when Hurricane Jeanne left 3,000 people dead in floods. In 2008, two hurricanes and two severe tropical storms battered the hemisphere’s poorest nation, sending mudslides down deforested hills and killing scores. The coastal city of Gonaïves, northwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince, has yet to rebuild.
The long-term forecast of more violent tropical weather has spurred the United Nations into preventive action – as much as can be accomplished when earthquake recovery work continues to be difficult, exhausting and slow given the Herculean task daunting aid officials. Under Secretary-General Alain Le Roy, the chief of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, says that it has been calculated that it will require 1,000 trucks a day working for five years to clear Haitian streets and roads of the rubble of the Jan. 12 quake.
Le Roy said in an interview in New York recently that engineers from Japan, South Korea and Brazil have been working to clear areas for new tent camps in places that are not normally vulnerable to hurricanes. More than 1.2 million – perhaps up to 1.5 million – Haitians in the earthquake zone in and around Port-au-Prince are still living in tents and shanties held together with whatever materials families can find. Persistent reports abound that more Haitians, looking for international aid or having given up on rebuilding on their own, are moving into crowded and often unsafe centers for the displaced.
There is a huge shortage of “hardened” buildings in Haiti to withstand hurricanes, Le Roy said, though the UN is constructing strong shelters in central locations in the new camps to help residents ride out the storms. The Haitians would surely lose the meager possessions that they have accumulated since the hurricane, however, if tropical storms reach the sites. It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone left in tent camps without any hurricane-proof structures would be in mortal danger.
In early June, the World Food Program adopted an emergency plan for the hurricane season, which lasts until November. “We are very concerned at predictions that this hurricane season will be a bad one,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the program, said in a statement after a visit to Haiti. “We are urgently getting food stocks and other life-saving supplies in thirty-one strategic positions for the most vulnerable people and locations.” The program’s food or cash-for-work projects are also helping communities protect themselves with, for example, flood barriers.
More specifically, the program has announced that it will position 1,000 metric tons of high-energy biscuits in the 31 locations around the country. Enough food to feed 1.3 million people for five days is being stored in warehouses, including six hurricane-proof portable storage buildings.
Creative alternative transportation has become a hallmark of World Food Program crisis work. To avoid blocked mountain roads in Haiti, container ports in Jacmel, on the south coast, and Gonaïves, on the west coast, will be readied to receive supplies, while barges may be used to move lifesaving goods along coastal waters. Satellite and other remote-sensing equipment will be brought in to help locate areas in need, the program said.
Haitians got one piece of good news recently. A UN peacekeepers-Haitian National Police raid on June 18 captured 30 criminals who had escaped from prison during the earthquake and were terrorizing a displaced person’s camp near the vast Cité Soleil slum close to the Port-au-Prince port area. Crime had been rising in the Jean-Marie Vincent camp, which prisoners had infiltrated. The UN mission in Haiti, known as Minustah, said that 350 UN police and troops were involved in the pre-dawn raid.
Violence, especially against women, has been a serious problem for all displaced people living in essentially unprotected tents or jerry-built shelters. In recent weeks, Bangladesh has deployed an all-female force to patrol in at least a few locations; India was also planning to send a contingent of policewomen. The Security Council recently expanded the number of UN police to be assigned to Haiti to nearly 4,400. Le Roy said that he had been offered more officers than he needed from contributing countries and was able to turn down contingents with a bad reputation on previous deployments – a milestone for the peacekeeping department, which has often been forced to work with undisciplined troops and police.
But unless a better, wider system of protection for the displaced can be put in place by the Haitian government and the Haitian National Police, a move to hurricane-season camps, even with more UN officers on patrol, will only take the criminality and abuse to new locations.
Barbara Crossette is the United Nations correspondent for The Nation and a former New York Times UN bureau chief.
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