PORT-AU-PRINCE – When it rains farmers in Indiana are thrilled. In Southern California, people welcome the rain as if it was mana from heaven. But for the urban dwellers of this capital city, – many of whom are living in tents – rain has become a nuisance rather than a celebration.
Last week, when a torrential downpour soaked Port-au-Prince, it left residents here vulnerable not only to the drenching but to the ailments that follow like fever, cold and pneumonia.
Since the earthquake of January 12, there have been only occasional showers and so far residents have proved resilient and complaints have been few. But with the rainy season looming, many in the country are bracing themselves for the worst. And officials are rethinking the policy of sheltering people in tents is a sound one.
The government has been asking international donors for tents to house roughly a million people whose homes were destroyed or are fearful of sleeping indoors for fear that their above – many of whom are cracked – may fall on them.
When it rains, those living under the tents stand sometimes for hours awaiting for the rain to pass. The women hold their babies, unable to sit or lay down.
“When I saw the rain I was in shock,” said prime minister Jean Max Bellerive. “We’re working to resolve the situation. If I tell you that it’s gong to be immediately, that not true.”
Bellerive said that about a million people are living under tents throughout the capital region and the southwestern tip of the country. He added that’s 10 percent of the population and that no country can adequately deal with such calamity.
Last week, a stroll through many of the so-called tent cities across Port-au-Prince and Leogane, about 20 miles south of here, residents expressed deep fears and resignation at their plight.
Roxanne Jean Baptiste, 29, lived in Carrefour Feuilles before the earthquake and now finds refuge under red Coleman tent near the crumbled national palace. Last week when the rain started, Jean Baptiste said she grabbed her 2-year old daughter Felicia and stood under the tent until the rain passed. The makeshift bed on the floor, though not wet, was moist and she feared for the health of the baby.
“She’s so vulnerable,” said Jean Baptiste as she clutches her daughter. “I worry about her.”
Jean Baptiste said that she would like to leave the tent city and return to Gonaives, her homeland, but the country’s fourth largest city, is reeling itself after four hurricanes destroyed it.
“I have some family there but they don’t have the capacity to help me. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Port-au-Prince but now look at where I am.”
Nearby Josette Pierre, was selling fritay to residents in the northeast area of the tent city. The rain drenched the charcoal and she had to buy new ones so that she can continue her commerce.
On her stall was an assortment of deep fried meat and tubers. While Pierre faces the same fears as her new neighbors, she also has to worry about her staples not being ruined.
“We’ve been dealt a bad hand, but we’re Haitians. We learn to live with it.”
While people may learn to live with this desperate situation, Haitian government officials say that they are asking not only for tents to house the people, but they are looking for temporary housing that can last up to five years.
“Our priority is to provide good living conditions to the people with the help of our friends from the South,” said president Rene Preval, accompanied by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.
According to Charles Clermont, the head of the presidential commission on reconstruction said that one of the first priorities is to clean the canals and provide transitional shelters that are somewhat durable.
“We’re here to give serious solutions and they are difficult,” Clermont, a straight talker said, added that these problems did not start yesterday. He said that Haitians have to come together and find the common solution, something that’s been lacking in the country.
“It’s complex but we can solve it,” Clermont said.
So far, the rain has been kind to Port-au-Prince street dwellers. But given this is a Caribbean country and that Haiti’s climate receives an average of 1353 mm (53.3 in) of rainfall per year, or 113 mm (4.4 in) per month., the worst is yet to come.
Francisco Jovin, city manager for Tabarre, said that his city is looking for containers that can be easily converted to temporary shelters for the thousands of residents in tents in Tabarre. He said these containers are the same that the UN officials use for offices and other shelter. He said they can last for a long time and the best thing is “I can move it whenever I want.”
The United Nations Security Council should make improving the quality and security of camps for displaced victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake a top priority, Human Rights Watch said in an open letter to the Council’s member state.
“Despite all the relief efforts, hundreds of thousands of Haitians remain in desperate need,” said Anna Neistat, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, who led the investigative team in Haiti. “The Haitian government urgently needs to do all it can lawfully to make sites available for camps for displaced and homeless persons.”
Despite the large-scale international effort to help the victims, the majority of the 1.2 million people left homeless by the earthquake continue to be in desperate need of vital assistance and protection. Human Rights Watch said it is concerned about the slow pace of efforts to acquire land needed to allow relief agencies to establish camp sites that meet international standards.
“Right now, tents are not a solution for us,” Jovin said.