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Haiti's rainy reason could mean suffering is in the forecast

Haitians pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after a devastating earthquake hit the impoverished nation on Jan. 12.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Sunday, April 4, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Mud invades every inch of the saggy handmade tent Mimose Pierre-Louis now calls home.

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It spatters the pink bedsheet that serves as her wall, crawls up the acacia branch that plays the role of wobbly tent pole and forms the floor she lies on. Near one end of the tent, a steep slope leads several hundred yards up to the Petionville Club, where elites once played tennis and luxuriated poolside with rum sours. A foot from the other, the earth drops 15 feet into a stinking canal turned open sewer since the Jan. 12 earthquake that left more than 1 million Haitians homeless.

Here in Port-au-Prince's largest encampment, a cruelly canted hillside inhabited by as many 70,000 people, Pierre-Louis lives on the edge as the ferocity of Haiti's April-May rainy season approaches.

Confronted with the challenge of destructive rains and floods, international relief agencies have launched an ambitious logistical operation aimed at protecting the Pierre-Louises of this wrecked city. They hope to carve new drainage outlets in the most vulnerable of the hundreds of camps in this city by mid-April and to relocate people living in the most precariously perched tents.

The consequences of failure would be devastating, Haitian and international officials say: another catastrophe -- 37,000 dead in floods and mudslides -- in a country traumatized by more than 200,000 earthquake deaths.

"The rainy season is a freight train headed right at us," said Anthony Banbury, who until recently was the acting second-in-command at the U.N. mission in Port-au-Prince. "We're in a race against time, and we can't lose a day."

Just the beginning

Banbury's race starts with a sprint and ends as a marathon. The sprint happens between now and April 15 -- the expected start of heavy rains -- when crews will dredge the new canals and build retaining walls. They will also attempt to find new refuge for 9,000 people whose tents are so imperiled by flash floods that they cannot be saved by the engineering work.

But that's just the beginning. Eventually, over the course of months, international officials hope to relocate at least 150,000 people living in unacceptably muddy camps wedged into ravines and on steep hillsides that could become breeding grounds for disease. (Several hundred thousand more are expected to find shelter on their own outside the camps, in the homes of friends and relatives or in semi-permanent structures near their homes.)

Banbury, a disaster veteran, said the challenges here "far exceed" anything he's seen.

Even figuring out how many people in the camps legitimately need to be relocated has become a complex exercise. Thousands are thought to have set up tents in camps to collect food and water during the day, even though their homes are habitable. And some quake victims have set up multiple tents -- say, a husband in one, a wife in another and their children in a third -- in order to collect more supplies, relief officials say.

Hillsides made bald by years of deforestation in Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country act as giant sluices, funneling torrents of water in even small storms. On the steep hillside below the Petionville Club, yesterday's mud becomes today's hard-packed claylike surface, perfect to channel water.

In post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, rainstorms -- including several brief ones over the past week -- lift refuse out of piles and spread it across streets and camps. With the ooze -- an awful melange of rotting fruit, chicken bones and human waste -- comes a smell that brings to mind spoiled milk and gangrenous wounds.


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