Haiti homeless caught between eviction and storm
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – The sky over Port-au-Prince’s tarp cities grew dark, the wind picked up and rain began to fall as Tropical Storm Tomas headed for the quake-stricken Haiti on Thursday. Government officials and police told people to leave their camps, but most had nowhere to go.
An estimated 1.3 million homeless faced their hardest decision since the earthquake: Do they follow the government’s advice and leave their slapped together shelters ahead of the storm and risk never being allowed to return? Or do they risk their lives and stay?
“I’m scared that if I leave they’ll tear this whole place down. I don’t have money to pay for a home somewhere else,” said Clarice Napoux, 21, who lives on a soccer field behind the St. Therese church in Petionville.
She and her boyfriend lost their house in the Jan. 12 quake. Their only income is the few Haitian gourdes she makes selling uncooked rice, beans and dry goods.
Haiti’s civil protection department has said those living in post-quake camps should go to the homes of friends and family. Buses began circulating just after dark to take camp residents away, but few were willing to go. Four civil protection buses that pulled up at a camp in the Canape-Vert district left with about five passengers in all.
President Rene Preval warned residents to leave camps in a Thursday radio address, but acknowledged, “The government doesn’t have enough places to move everyone.”
By Thursday evening, Tomas was packing winds near 60 mph and was expected to pass eastern Jamaica later in the night and near western Haiti early today, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said Tomas could strengthen into a hurricane as its center passed Haiti and eastern Cuba moving toward the southeastern Bahamas.
In Jamaica, schools were closed in eastern provinces and traffic was jammed in the capital, Kingston, as businesses closed early.
“I’m taking no chances,” said Carlton Samms, a bus driver who was going home early after stopping at a supermarket for food and other supplies.
At the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba, the military was clearing away any debris that could fly off in strong winds and ensuring the soldiers and sailors who serve as guards for the 174 detainees have enough supplies.
“We have a well rehearsed plan that is going to serve us well,” said Navy Cmdr. James Thornton, Guantanamo Bay’s operations officer.
Five to 10 inches (12 to 25 centimeters) of rain was forecast for much of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Port-au-Prince’s airport was expected to be closed through Friday, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Sanderson.
Civil protection officials in Haiti have a list of thousands of usable shelters in the capital – mostly schools and churches – but it was not being released to the public despite pressure from international aid groups who said the information could save lives.
“We don’t want people to know where these buildings are because people are going to invade and we won’t have enough places for the people who really need them,” Lochard said.
Most of Haiti’s post-quake homeless live under donated plastic tarps on open fields. It is often private land, where they have been constantly fighting eviction. A September report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 29 percent of 1,268 camps studied had been closed forcibly, meaning the often violent relocation of tens of thousands of people.
Haitian human-rights lawyer Mario Joseph, who testified on behalf of those evicted before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this summer, said he fears the government is using the storm as an excuse to drive people off disputed land.
“I think it’s going to be a time of eviction,” he said. He said he has advised people who know they are at risk for floods, landslides and wind damage to stay in buildings near the camp and return to their squatters’ sites as soon as possible after the storm.
Reconstruction has barely begun and even the building of transitional shelters – sturdier than makeshift tents, but not solid houses – has been slow. Large tranches of long-term funds, including a promised $1.15 billion from the United States, have not arrived. The State Department now says it still has to prove the money won’t be stolen or misused.
“We know that, particularly with flooding and mudslides, there’s going to be a loss of life. It’s inevitable. But we will be prepared to do everything that we can to meet the immediate needs of the Haitian people,” State department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday.
As rebuilding lags, the United Nations and aid groups have been giving people reasons to stay in camps, providing aid and essential services such as medicine. That continued Thursday as residents reluctant to leave were given reinforcing tarps and other materials.
“We have always said that the best way to protect people in camps is to make camps as resistant as possible to any weather,” said U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Imogen Wall. “(Evacuation) doesn’t make sense … on a practical level, on a large scale.”
By Thursday morning there were already problems. Residents of the nearly 8,000-person government relocation camp at Corail-Cesselesse threw bottles at aid workers trying to get them to leave their ShelterBox tents for schools, churches and an abandoned prison nearby.
“If we go away, other people are going to move in our place! We want to stay here because we don’t have another place to go,” said 29-year-old Roland Jean.
The camp’s grounds were designed by U.S. military engineers and graded by the United Nations. But the selection of the site has been criticized by aid groups almost since the beginning: a desert plain 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of the city, constantly floods and suffers wind damage.
Residents were told the tents could resist hurricanes. ShelterBox spokesman Tommy Tonkins said Thursday that they can stand up to heavy rains and 75 mph (120 kph) winds, but are not hurricane-proof.
By Thursday afternoon, camp officials had resolved the dispute and several hundred people began to leave on trucks provided by U.N. peacekeepers. An AP reporter visited the site ahead of the evacuation and found that while the school, church and abandoned hospital chosen as shelters were large and undamaged, they had no water or usable toilets. Aid workers expect people who flee the camps could stay for days.
Tomas killed at least 14 people when it slammed the eastern Caribbean country of St. Lucia as a hurricane Saturday. It will cost roughly $500 million to repair flattened banana fields, destroyed houses, broken bridges and eroded beaches in the storm-staggered island, Prime Minister Stephenson King announced Thursday.
King said some of what he had seen in the hard-hit southern town of Soufriere “really and truly devastated my own psyche.”