Tens of thousands of Haitians still lack adequate shelter

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 20, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Helta Exanville spent the night in tears, cradling her infant son as a tropical rain drummed on the tarp-and-tin roof overhead. Water leaked relentlessly through the seams, she said, invading her little shelter, soaking her clothes, turning the earthen floor into mud and, in the darkest hours before dawn, driving her to despair.

Exanville, 36, and tens of thousands of homeless families camping on the capital's central esplanade have become icons for what remains urgently to be done as part of the international relief effort in Haiti. More than five weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake, most of the bodies have been buried and most of the wounded cared for, but more than 1 million people, about 11 percent of the population, lack adequate shelter.

President René Préval has put more shelter deliveries at the top of his wish list to the United States. At the same time, the top U.N. relief coordinator, John Holmes, has scolded his Haiti-based lieutenants for what he said was a slow response in getting shelter to those living in the hundreds of camps that have sprung up since the temblor killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Far from the back and forth between high officials, Exanville and many of her neighbors on the Champ de Mars esplanade said simply that they would like to get tents as fast as possible. They noted that when the rainy season starts in earnest, in May, near-daily downpours will be impossible to handle without waterproof shelters.

"Look at this," said Jean Theodore, 64, who lives with his wife and four children in a shelter slapped together with plywood, corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. He gestured toward the plastic sheet forming the roof. "As soon as it rains, the water drips right through. We want a tent."

Tents have become valuable commodities in the Champ de Mars. One resident, Jean-Claude Zennet, complained that a Haitian working for an international aid agency told him that he would have to pay $700 to live in one. "Everything goes on as business here," Zennet said. "If you don't know somebody or pay somebody, you don't get nothing."

International aid agencies, based on their experience in previous natural disasters, have decided that plastic tarps with lumber for frames are preferable to tents here. Tents take up too much room, officials said, and do not last long enough. In addition, aid specialists said, tarps are cheaper and can be used again to build more permanent emergency housing, what relief workers call "transitional shelters," designed to last until real homes can be built from wood or concrete.

Several thousand of the homeless stood in a tightly packed line Thursday morning to get plastic tarps and nails that were being handed out by Catholic Relief Services workers. The line ran in front of the collapsed National Palace, turned left and snaked down a side street. Haitian police and U.S. soldiers with M16s stood by to maintain order.

Luciano Tevenin, 29, said he wanted a tent because his family was soaked in the rain that morning. But he would take what he could get, he said, and stood patiently in the slow-moving line.

The U.S. Agency for International Development provided Haiti with a few large tents to be used as temporary refuges during search-and-rescue operations. The aid agency has sent 7,000 rolls of plastic sheeting. An additional 5,000 rolls are on the way, with delivery scheduled before the end of February.

In a written response to questions, its office in Port-au-Prince listed reasons that plastic sheeting and transitional shelter kits are superior to tents, saying they "provide a larger living space, have more flexible applications to social and site conditions . . . can be provided at a significantly lower cost and serve as an economic stimulus to local economies, as the material is often purchased locally rather than imported."

The Haitian government, although eclipsed in many ways by foreign and international aid groups, has avoided making the distinction in its relief efforts, seeking shelter of any kind from as many sources as possible. A spokesman for Préval, Assad Volcy, said Haitian officials are trying to get more tents, more tarps and more lumber for semi-permanent shelters as fast as possible, without trying to decide what is best.

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