Early morning in the Champ de Mars plaza, downtown Port-au-Prince, one of the five biggest of the improvised settlements housing Haiti’s acutely vulnerable homeless population.
Hundreds of soaked, sleepless residents who lost their houses in the January 12 earthquake are lining up in the fading drizzle for a distribution run by the U.S. military.
Spectacular thunderstorms over Port-au-Prince the previous evening drenched the city and the hundreds of camps that fill its open spaces and cling to its hillsides.
About twelve hours of virtually unbroken rain followed overnight.
The Champ de Mars, where an estimated 16,000 people cluster in a mishmash of shelters in front of the ruined presidential palace, has become the most emblematic of all the quake settlements.
The statues of the great figures of Haiti’s past—Tooussaint Louverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexandre Pétion, and the Marron inconnu—are still visible close up from the flimsy shelters of the people whose ancestors they helped liberate.
Filthy water Across the paved plaza, the day after weather-watchers may judge the 2010 rainy season began, people are mopping up the filthy water that swept around their homes overnight—and into some.
There were no reports of casualties citywide; no major floods or landslides.
But across town at the Terrain Golf settlement—by far the biggest, housing nearly 40,000 displaced people—people were said to be frantically digging drainage channels with their bare hands.
All over Port-au-Prince, people in the improvised settlements adopted the now familiar tactic of standing up under their tarpaulins, clutching children and clothes and precious belongings as they waited for the deluge to end.
But a quick survey of several of the largest camps provided one small encouraging sign: the tarpaulins held. The ramshackle shelters did not collapse under the weight of water.
“As far as we know none of the tarps here gave way,” said Michel Louis, a civil engineer with the Haitian National Red Cross Society, who supervises humanitarian projects at the Automeca camp, near the Red Cross base.
Gable top Most of the tarp shelters at Automeca, for one, are constructed correctly—with a gable top, not a flat one.
Louis is sloshing his way round the camp with Jean Gilardi, team leader of the British Red Cross mass sanitation Emergency Response Unit (ERU), which has been working at Automeca, home to nearly 10,000 people, since the start.
The pair wrench their feet out of the gluey mud with every step, but to the delight of both, their new latrines are also intact.
“When we first came to Automeca in the immediate aftermath of the quake, we put in 60 pit-latrines with pre-fab cubicles—standard practice in an emergency,” says Gilardi. “But they’re vulnerable to flooding.
“As the rainy season approached, we rushed to start replacing the pit latrines with small, buried septic tanks that are more or less flood-proof.
“Now we’ve got eight new flood-proof latrines in, and with any luck the other 50-odd will be replaced within a few weeks—building up to a total of a hundred.”
Shelters The humanitarian community had been hoping a significant number of quake-affected people would be moved from the desperately overcrowded settlements ahead of the rainy season, which is usually dated from April 1.
It isn’t going to happen.
There has been some movement on the crucial land issue in recent weeks. Surveying work has begun at two of the five locations named by the government as resettlement sites.
Last Saturday saw the official opening of the first new transitional settlement for 1,400 people at Santo 17 in Croix des Bouquets, on land made available by the local authorities.
The Red Cross, meanwhile, is negotiating with mayors for agreement to start building emergency “core” shelters—12-square-metre wood-frame houses—at several small sites in Port-au-Prince.
Deadly flood “Clearly we shared the hope that people could be moved in time,” said Iain Logan, head of operations for the global Red Cross network in Haiti.
“But as the Red Cross we have to stand ready to help people wherever they are—even if that means wading through mud to get to them.
“And we may have to do just that.”
Haiti has already seen one deadly flood this year after heavy rain swept through the western end of the southern promontory, leaving parts of the city of Les Cayes under five feet of water and claiming at least 12 lives.
Blocked storm drains and sewers were thought to have made those floods worse.