September 29, 2010 / 3:30 PM / 9 years ago

Haiti quake homeless at risk, shelter crisis drags

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian mother Louise Estela Nacius and her five children have lost their home twice in less than a year.

The first time was in January when a devastating earthquake toppled their house along with those of at least 1.5 million others in the overcrowded capital Port-au-Prince.

Their second “home,” a tarpaulin stretched on sticks over a patch of muddy earth in a quake survivors’ tent camp, was blown down on Friday when a freak storm hit the ravaged city and its camps for the quake homeless, causing fear and panic.

“I have five children. My tent collapsed. I have nowhere to go,” said Nacius, 38. She is staying in a neighbor’s tent, one of thousands carpeting muddy slopes at a former golf club turned into a camp for more than 50,000 quake survivors.

Friday’s freak storm killed six people, injured some 70 and damaged or destroyed the tent or tarpaulin homes of more than 10,000 families. It highlighted the persisting and potentially deadly vulnerability of the homeless from the Jan. 12 quake that killed up to 300,000 in the poorest state in the Americas.

Even a specially built resettlement camp outside Port-au-Prince, at Corail-Cesselesse, was battered by the storm.

Aid workers have quickly distributed new shelter materials, but the continuing hurricane season still threatens another humanitarian catastrophe. “I don’t even want to think about that,” said one aid worker, who asked not to be named.

Providing secure shelter for the around 1.3 million quake homeless crammed into the camps is proving the toughest challenge for the Haiti recovery effort, which despite wide international support and billion-dollar aid pledges faces criticism of slow progress, official foot-dragging and bureaucratic entanglement.

RUBBLE, LAND BOTTLENECKS

More than nine months after the quake, roadside piles of rubble still border Port-au-Prince’s traffic- and pedestrian- choked streets, alongside shattered buildings.

Government officials and aid workers have held long debates over the relative merits of tents, tarpaulins, transitional shelters and housing designs. They say resettlement plans have been bedeviled by a lack of available land and a complex ownership situation confused by multiple property claims and an absence of reliable land records.

“The main issue is space, where do you evacuate to?” said Alistair Lamb, Haiti country director for the J/P HRO charity of Hollywood actor Sean Penn, which manages the Petionville Golf Club survivors camp. The J/P HRO operation lost its main staff accommodation structure and its hospital tent in Friday’s storm, though the hospital tent was quickly replaced.

“Rubble removal is the main bottleneck,” Lamb added, saying his organization had started its own rubble removal operation in a nearby quake-ravaged neighborhood to try to advance the process of returning survivors to their home areas. Clearing of debris was crucial for resettlement and rebuilding, Lamb said.

But he added: “Rubble is not sexy for donors”.

Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which is spearheading the shelter operation, says Haiti’s government and society need to put the resettlement issue at the center of national debate.

“You can only build shelter where you have land, you can only build on a piece of land that you have legal title to that can only come from a national conversation led by the government,” he said.

“Take a helicopter flight above Port-au-Prince and you will see sizable areas of open land. So don’t tell me it’s lack of space,” Doyle said. “The society needs to decide for itself, whether it’s going to keep people in squatter camps, or organized camps, and whether it’s going to allocate resources for the move.”

ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES NEEDED

But many say moving quake survivors out of the Port-au-Prince camps, where they receive food, water, protection and medical care — and pay no rent – is pointless unless the government can offer real economic livelihoods, jobs and income opportunities.

“I would like to go back to my home neighborhood, if I had resources to rebuild,” said 44-year-old Mitane Silvestre, a mother of six in the Petionville Golf Club camp whose house in the Delmas 75 neighborhood was flattened by the quake.

Jocelerme Privert, an economic adviser to Haitian President Rene Preval, said: “People don’t want to leave one tent to go to another. You can’t move people outside Port-au-Prince without giving them opportunities.” The solution is major public and private investment projects to create jobs, Privert said.

But major fresh private investments have been slow to come as businesses fret over stability worries in volatile Haiti, as the quake-shattered country prepares to hold presidential elections on Nov. 28.

Aid officials say it is a sad comment on Haiti’s dire poverty that the internationally supported camps provide better living conditions for many Haitians than they had before.

But for survivors like Nacius, that is not enough. “This is not our home, we can’t spend our lives in a tent,” she said.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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