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How the rains are impacting life in Haiti camps

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It’s stiflingly hot here in Haiti, the fierce sun beating down and making life under the tarpaulin shelters unbearable for those in the camps. The relief comes when the clouds roll over the hills on the edge of Port-au-Prince and the first rain drops begin to fall. But relief quickly turns to discomfort as the heavens open and the rain pours in.

It has rained heavily the last two nights here, making conditions even more difficult. We have been preparing for the rains and the tarpaulins we have given do provide the minimum of shelter needed. This together with extra drainage, increasing numbers of latrines, clearing of rubbish, and the provision of bathing areas is improving conditions in the camps where we are working.

Yesterday we assessed the 30 most vulnerable camps to see what the impact of the rains had been. Ten vehicles went out, with experts in water and sanitation, relief, and health. We were looking for signs of shelter or latrines collapsing and drainage channels blocking or flooding. Of the 30, nine were identified as in need of additional immediate assistance in the forms of new shelters, latrines and extra drainage which we then proceeded to provide.

Most pleasing to me was that the two camps had not suffered any exceptional damage and that the community teams with whom we have been working were out and about checking the drainage channels, unblocking any accumulated rubbish, and making sure that the latrines were clean. The rains will get heavier and last longer, but this exercise showed we are moving in the right direction.

Looking back at the last three months of disaster response here in Haiti, so much has been done of which we should be pleased. British Red Cross alone has contributed more than 55 personnel to the wider international red cross effort of more than 1,000 international staff, committed over £10 million in funds with more to come as we enter the recovery phase. Don’t get me wrong, lots more needs to be done and at times here it an feel like two steps forward and one step back.

On a personal level it has been a stretching time for all of us in the disaster management department with the Haiti response demanding, and receiving, a high level of attention. We’ve not been neglecting other situations around the globe though as evidenced by our response to the Chile earthquake, conflict in Yemen, the deployment of a team to Mongolia’s severe winter emergency, drought in Niger and the monitoring of flooding in Brazil and conflict in Kyrgyzstan.

There’s no doubt though that the scale of needs, the pre-existing poverty and the damage to the country’s centralised infrastructure make Haiti in 2010 one of the biggest challenges the disaster management community has faced for many a year.

Donate now to the Red Cross Haiti earthquake appeal

Rain and shelter – the twin problems facing Haiti

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Long meeting with Marcel and Ian, who are running the Federation‘s operation in Haiti. Already they are planning for what is effectively a second disaster response operation when the rains start in earnest.

This is one problem, the other is land. There isn’t enough and arrangements to release privately owned land for use by those displaced by the earthquake are making little progress. Every spare inch is crowded with tents and tarpaulins. Most people now, perhaps 70%, have cover of a rudimentary kind: but it’s not enough to withstand days and nights of torrential rain, let alone a hurricane.

But that’s a temporary solution. Somehow we have to find space to build tens of thousands of proper shelters that will last a few years whilst governments, hopefully, will make the money and the muscle available to start to rebuild.

Later, we drove downtown, past the Presidential Palace with its crazy leaning domes; the Tax Office reduced, quite literally, to dust; shops and offices with gaping windows and shattered walls. We went up into the hills, to see the broken headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross, and looked across a valley full of dusty rubble and blotched with blue tarps.

Across the city, in a 4 hour drive, we saw not a street untouched, nor a single open space without its crop of tents. Everywhere was dust and rubble, and only twice did we see any serious attempt at clearance.

We visited also the ‘Golf Course’ camp, publicised by Sean Penn’s recent visit. There are now US soldiers on guard duty, and concerted efforts being made to improve conditions. Sean himself swished by in a small jeep while we were there, evidently still concerned to help. Trouble is, it’s just one of 600 such camps, spread around the city and further afield.

Back at base, we talked with our shelter expert about the challenges of identifying who most needs help in crowded camps, of how to source sufficient timber for the task, and how physically to set about building while the camps are so crammed full.

No rain tonight at least, but tomorrow is another day…..

A foretaste of Haiti’s impending rains

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We return to Base Camp for a security briefing. There is a strict 6pm curfew, and great care is taken to ensure the safety of our teams. There have been some violent incidents as frustrated people show their anger.


Then it’s day’s end, and our mass sanitation team members review progress – pits dug, latrines built, timber (in impossibly short supply) sourced for next week, the warehouse cleared and sorted.

I say how pleased I was with the cleanliness of the camps, how proud of all their hard work. They smile and exchange glances.

At supper time it starts raining. Sheets of solid water sluice down from a black sky. We sit out for a while under an awning.

Soon we are soaked from the splash back. I trudge to the social tent, wet through, and meet Marcel and Ian, who are running the massive Red Cross operation here.

They know that the rainy season is coming, tonight a modest foretaste: it will bring a second wave of disaster and misery for the camps, and Haiti will slide another few steps backwards. No one talks of rebuilding.

Visiting Red Cross camps in Haiti

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Haiti airport approaching midday; the arrivals lounge, a large corrugated hangar, is superheating in the hot sun. We queue for immigration, as cases and bags are flung in through a hole in the wall.

Flying over Port au Prince, it looks like a dozen other Caribbean islands: green, mountainous, sandy beaches and bright sea. You can see occasional clusters of blue roofed dwellings, but to a seasoned disaster practitioner it is clear these are tents and tarpaulins, sheltering the lucky ones.

A hand grabs my shoulder: Cassius from the Red Cross takes my bag and we fight our way to the truck and drive the short distance to Base Camp.

Here, there are neat lines of white tents, offices set up in a ruined hotel and lunch with the gracious Haitian Red Cross President Madame Gedeon.

Every disaster produces heroes and heroines – here is one of Haiti’s: precisely spoken, neatly dressed, daintily emphatic, she has dragged the Society to its feet after the devastating quake, found volunteers from nowhere, and now directs operations from a dark, dusty, windowless room with quiet efficiency.

The Danish Red Cross chef produces a delicious soup, and pasta salad. There are mangoes. We eat quickly and leave for the Camps, Automeca and La Piste, where British Red Cross is building latrines and organising the sanitation for 12000 and 48000 people respectively.

Automeca is a clean lively place, a collection of makeshift huts and shelters built on some waste ground beside the main road. It seems calm and cheerful on a Saturday afternoon, the residents taking their weekend ease, squatting in shady doorways, a few feet from their neighbours.

We visit latrines – there is one for every 209 people. They are spotless. The community committee demonstrates how well built they are, and we watch a gleeful gang of small local children dancing around two clowns who teach them a hygiene chant: “After I poo, I wash my hands” they sing, to howls of mirth, as the kids wave their arms and jump about in the gravel.

Two small boys fly a kite, a ragged tangle of sticks, string and scrubby plastic. Up and away. They wish.

We drive on to La Piste, bigger, built on some kind of ceremonial parade ground. Here there is washing going on by the grey scummy waters of a storm drain.

We are building a shower block here, the carpenters already at work. The latrines are clean here too, but scraps of used paper still end up on the path outside.

This is a crammed, edgy place, the wind scurrying busily around the shacks, all built from tarpaulins and scraps of wood from fallen homes and offices.

They lean on each other at crazy angles; here is a small shop, there a bar, now a guy beating out some sheet metal; it looks incredibly well-established, as if this has been home for years. It probably won’t look much different in 5 years time.

Disgracefully, for some Haitians, these are the best living conditions they have ever had. You sense that the good weekend mood could shift in an instant, the tension there just waiting for the excuse to erupt. They have reason to be angry, these unlucky folk.

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