U.N. and Haitian government to begin campaign to house homeless before rain season

Heberl Jeantil, 26, hammers a bent nail as he builds a frame for the clapboard house in Delmar, Haiti, where he and two other family members will live after being displaced by the recent earthquake.
Heberl Jeantil, 26, hammers a bent nail as he builds a frame for the clapboard house in Delmar, Haiti, where he and two other family members will live after being displaced by the recent earthquake. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The United Nations and the Haitian government are poised to begin an intense public awareness campaign in the capital city, part of an urgent effort to move hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake out of harm's way before the rain and flood season begins next month.

International relief workers and local surveyors have begun the tedious process of identifying and registering the 700,000 people now living in tented communities all over the capital. To determine whether abandoned homes and neighborhoods are safe for inhabitants, 160 specially trained engineers have fanned out to the hardest-hit areas to assess structures.

Heavy rain has already begun to wash through this debris-ridden city, flooding the filthy, fragile camps that sprung up after the earthquake, which killed an estimated 230,000 people. Government officials and relief organizations fear that Port-au-Prince will turn into a massive sewer of bacteria and disease when rains hit with their characteristic unrelenting gusto, possibly followed by June hurricanes.

Hygiene and sanitation in the camps are already nonexistent as the settlements quickly turn into shanty towns. There are not enough portable toilets, and debris has clogged most of the drains.

"With the rains come the risk of water-borne diseases, which create intestine bacteria and diarrhea, and diarrhea is deadly to children," said Simon Ingram, a spokesman for UNICEF. The organization estimates that 250,000 children are displaced. In addition, health-care providers noted that the rain can also escalate malaria cases as mosquitoes reproduce near stagnant water.

The fast-approaching rainy season is the next big crisis deadline consuming the Haitian government and relief workers. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Haiti on Sunday -- his second visit since the earthquake -- and walked through one of the camps to assess the rain danger.

In the coming weeks, the United Nations, in conjunction with the government and other relief organizations, will begin a communication effort to reach the displaced population, including radio, text messages, television news and even a television soap opera to drive home the point that masses of people must be relocated.

Kristen Knutson, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the organization is trying several means of entertainment to get people's attention.

"We are trying to create activities with music from loudspeakers so people will rally around and we can explain to them the importance of being registered," she said Tuesday. "We have also had some comic books drawn up with the same message, and we're circulating those."

In addition, almost everyone has a cellphone, so texting between the population and relief agencies has been a common way to communicate. Residents can text questions and complaints to a central data bank so relief agencies can get feedback.

Initially, officials were looking to move people to five new camps outside the city, but that plan is now at the bottom of a list of alternatives because of the cost. Instead, officials are hoping to coax people back to their neighborhoods -- if not into their homes, at least onto their properties.

Officials say that 29 of the 425 sites are the most vulnerable to flooding and have been targeted for relocation, accounting for about 200,000 of the homeless.

As engineers survey properties, they will assess whether a structure is safe for a family to inhabit, said France Hurtubise, a spokeswoman for OCHA. If not, families will be encouraged to camp out nearby in the hope that their homes can be stabilized or rebuilt eventually.

That plan may be difficult. Rubble clogs most side streets, and many people are terrified to reenter their homes. At a clinic near the airport, patients have refused to stay inside a building unaffected by the earthquake, instead sleeping on hospital beds moved into a courtyard.

One of the tented communities that officials are eager to relocate is across the street from the destroyed presidential palace, but many living there said they have nowhere to go.

Adelus Serge, a father of three, said he lost everything in the quake, including his house, which is now simply rubble. He is not opposed to going back to his property but says he is waiting. "There is no water, no electricity, nothing," he said.

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