Reflection: As Tomas’ Rains Fall

From Beatrice Lindstrom, Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network Fellow
The thousands of blue and gray tents that sit patiently sandwiched between developments along Port-au-Prince’s roads have become an oddly mundane part of this city’s landscape.  Driving through the city, they almost seem as natural as the endless traffic jams and constant dust that characterizes daily life in Haiti.

But each time the rain falls, I still struggle to turn my mind away from Port-au-Prince’s internally displaced people, especially the hundreds of families living on the street outside my apartment in makeshift tents pulled together from tarp, scrap metal and sheets.  For so many of Haiti’s IDPs, rain means no sleep.  It means standing up throughout the night.  It means that the water will transform the floors of their homes into a muddy mess that seeps through their belongings and soaks their beds.

1.3 million people, or over a third of the city’s population, have been living in these conditions for 10 months.  On a normal day, it’s criminal.  But as Haiti awaits the landfall of Hurricane Tomas, the inevitable and plain vulnerability of the country’s IDP communities makes me want to scream.

I was in one of Port-au-Prince’s some 800 IDP camps this afternoon, in the hours before the rain rolled in.  The sky was ominously dark, and the camp eerily silent, like we were all holding our breaths in fear of what was to come.  Even in the light afternoon winds, tarps were flapping hard, trying to hold on though they were never designed to last this long in the first place.   How can they possibly hold up in the 60 mph winds we expect overnight?

In one corner of the camp, a woman was struggling to tighten the ropes that secure her tarps to the ground.  I asked David Bazil, the camp organizer leading us through the narrow paths between the tents, what they could do to prepare for the storm.  The answer was obvious: “Nothing. We have no means.” One woman added, “Now we wait for God to help us.”

The Haitian government’s preparatory measures have centered around encouraging voluntary evacuations of the camps.  Just a few minutes ago, I received a text message advising to “take your family to a secure place if you live along a ravine, river bank, or by the sea.”  This could easily describe much of the hilly and coastal terrain of the city.  Though some schools and churches have been designated hurricane shelters, the government’s plan relies mostly on asking people to seek shelter among friends and family.  To facilitate this, the IOM distributed a warning cartoon in the camps today entitled “run to your neighbor”.  Helpful, when all your neighbors also live in tents.

When I asked the camp residents if they have anywhere to go, the answer was simply no.  With no other options, the community is resigned to riding out the storm in the camp.  This is the common sense reality facing most of Haiti’s IDPs, and highlights the absurdity of the plan. If they had somewhere else to go, they would have left long ago.

Whatever damage we wake up to tomorrow will not be the result of a natural disaster.  That Haiti would eventually face a hurricane is news to no one, nor is it at all surprising that such a storm would wreak havoc in the tent camps.  The UN, in their media messaging on the hurricane, admits that “we know historically Haiti is disproportionately vulnerable to hurricanes, and that even tropical storms or just heavy rain can trigger serious disaster.”  Yet to date, only 19,000 transitional wooden shelters have been built, which covers only a small fraction of the families left homeless after the earthquake.

Whatever damage Hurricane Tomas leaves will be a result of the combination of the international community’s failure to deliver the billions of dollars in aid that was supposed to rebuild Haiti and provide secure shelter for the victims of the January earthquake, and the failure of the Haitian government to take a leadership role in the rebuilding process, and to mobilize reasonable measures to protect Haiti’s IDP communities.  To date, only 20 percent of the aid pledged to Haiti has actually materialized.   And while the U.S. State Department deliberates the release of the 1.15 billion dollars it promised, calamities like cholera and tropical storms that are both predictable and preventable in nature will continue to ravage Haiti’s vulnerable communities.