CAMP SITRON, PORT-AU-PRINCE — With beads of sweat glistening on his brow in the midday heat, Jean-Michel Flaurae drives his shovel into the dark brown soil. He and a dozen other young Haitians are hard at work on a steep hillside in Camp Sitron, a cluster of tarp-covered shelters and shacks, in a race against time.
As meteorologists predict one of the most active hurricane seasons in recent years, the group is digging drainage ditches and laying sandbags and gravel through a disaster-preparedness program developed by the American Red Cross. They are working to make the camp safer for some 300 families who settled here after their homes were damaged or entirely collapsed.
“It’s hard work, but it’s a good project,” says Flaurae. The 22-year-old with soft brown eyes wears a red T-shirt and knee-high rubber boots supplied by the Red Cross.
The American Red Cross is directing similar programs at 9 spontaneous camps around the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, expanding to 25 camps by late June and targeting 100 camps within six months. These work teams, armed with picks and shovels, are trying to limit the damage of pounding rains that will send torrents of water rushing through the camps during the rainy season.
Trained as an artist, Flaurae designed womens’ sandals before the earthquake hit. Like so many people he knew, within a few minutes, his life had changed forever: he lost his home, his job, and two younger brothers, who died when their house collapsed.
Flaurae’s life was spared because he was watching television at a neighbor’s house that survived the tremors. He fled to the bottom of the valley as buildings crashed down around him and when the shaking stopped, he raced back up the hillside, pulling neighbors from the wrecks of their homes. Some had only minor scratches, but many others – too many to count, he says – were already dead. When he reached the house he shared with his 18- and 20-year-old brothers, he found nothing but rubble. Their bodies are still buried under the debris, which is still painfully visible on the hillside directly opposite where his team is digging a drainage ditch.
Now Flaurae lives at Camp Sitron in a makeshift tarp shelter with his cousin and aunt. They are the only family he has left. He recalls how only a few months ago he could look from his house across the narrow valley to this hillside, which was lush and green. “It was beautiful, with lots of trees,” he says, recalling how he would hike up the hillside to pick mangoes for his family.
Flaurae says the American Red Cross project is the first positive activity he has been involved with since the earthquake struck. Being part of a work team allows camp residents to earn much-needed cash – they are paid $5 a day in a country where many people live on $2 a day – and make a contribution to their new community.
With Red Cross training, residents are also learning to administer basic first aid, manage fires, operate walkie-talkies, use a set of colored flags to warn fellow residents of impending threats, and evacuate the camp for a safer location if necessary.
To complement this preparedness work, the American Red Cross is shipping seven large, disaster-resistant warehousing tents (33 ft x 75 ft) and fifty mid-size tents to store relief items, such as blankets, tarps, hygiene and first aid items. The American Red Cross is also shipping 75,000 blankets to be stocked in these warehouses.
“Now I’m not scared about hurricane season,” says Flaurae, taking a break to lean against his shovel. “I hope we will be ready.”