Haiti's race for shelter

The hundreds of thousands of Haitians who now are living in flimsy shelters that they have pieced together from scraps of rubble, plastic and bedsheets may count at least one blessing: It's the dry season. Little precipitation has fallen on the beleaguered Caribbean nation since the earthquake Jan. 12 leveled the capital.

But the rains are coming, and with them, mud, misery and water-borne disease. For shelter experts struggling to move as many earthquake survivors as possible into better housing before the start of the rainy season in April, it's a race against time.

"People have not yet begun to figure out what to do so they won't be as badly affected. They're just struggling to get by day to day now," said Isaac Boyd, a shelter expert with Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, who spoke via satellite phone from Port-au-Prince.

His plans call for CRS to find land, hire survivors to clear debris and build shelters for up to 40,000 households of five people each. They'll also have to build latrines to offer occupants some privacy and security, and to prevent the spread of disease.

"We're aiming to have all the transitional shelters built at the very latest by the end of June," said Boyd, who was dispatched to Haiti from Kenya, where he is based.

With hundreds of workers in Haiti and decades of experience in the country, CRS "should be able to get this ramped up rather quickly," he said.

Even the dry season isn't entirely dry. It just means that rain is less likely to fall, said Jack Beven, a senior specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Showers may drift through on trade winds or with a frontal system off the North American continent.

Since Boyd arrived in Haiti, he has seen some clouds gather. "People were maybe a little bit nervous about that," he said. But the rain held off, to the relief of survivors.

Boyd has no reliable statistics on the number of Haitians left homeless after the quake. But from his observations, he said, most are living outside their homes, either because the houses have been reduced to rubble or because they fear their homes are unsafe.

"There are lots and lots of spontaneous settlements that have sprung up in empty spaces between buildings and on unused lots," Boyd said. "People have salvaged materials from broken buildings - doorframes, iron sheets for roofs. They've cobbled those together and made walls out of things like bedsheets."

Most are no more than 7 feet square, he said.

"You can't really call it a shelter," Boyd said. "Most of them don't have a roof, or it's just a thin sheet. ... And if they're on a slope, they haven't dug any channels to prevent water from flowing into where they are."

"There are places like the one I'm driving by right now where 10 families have come together and set up spontaneous settlements ... up to, say, 7,000 or 8,000. Some are even larger," he said.

"When it rains, it's going to be a hazard," Boyd said. "First, it's going to be uncomfortable. And second, it's going to be a hazard, because people may get washed away."

Haiti is very hilly - its name is derived from the Taíno word for mountain - and the hills have been denuded by deforestation. That leaves them vulnerable to runoffs, flash floods and mudslides, Beven said.

Monthly average rainfall in Port-au-Prince doubles from 3 inches to 6 inches in April, then rises to more than 8.5 inches in May, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Monthly average rainfall in Baltimore is about 3.5 inches year-round.

The hurricane season in the Caribbean peaks from August to October, bringing an average of more than 6 inches of rain each month. It can be devastating.

In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne moved over the eastern part of the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, then just north of Haiti itself - far enough away that the winds were not a serious issue there. But the rains were.

"We had a tremendous rain event near the town of Gonaives, and because of the flash flooding and mudslides near that town, we had 2,900 people die," Beven said. In 2008, four tropical cyclones in a span of just three weeks killed 500 to 800 people in Haiti.

In 2009, Haiti was spared any tropical systems. But that luck can't hold, either.

Boyd said CRS and other relief agencies are working to identify places where communities of transitional housing can be built and to secure permission from landowners and government officials to build housing designed to be occupied for two to five years.

"They can't be considered permanent because they're not bricks and mortar and concrete," he said. But they should be "adequate in terms of protection from the weather and providing security. They should also be fairly comfortable and safe, and they will not fall down."

Boyd said some shelter experts now in Haiti want to stop the flow of tents into the country because they are not very durable and require too much space for guy wires and pegs.

The transitional housing designs call for lightweight frames made with lumber or steel studs that must be imported from outside the country. Roofs will likely be corrugated metal, with plastic sheeting for the walls, coupled with recycled steel reinforcing bars to provide some security - all available locally. Tools, rope, nails and other materials can also come from Haiti or the Dominican Republic.

The labor will be supplied by the Haitians themselves, Boyd said. "The idea is to engage people in something moderately labor-intensive so they can earn some income, and at the same time use a sort of building technology they're probably familiar with."

The houses are braced to stand up to hurricane conditions and earthquakes, and the designs have worked well in the wake of other natural or man-made disasters to which Boyd has responded, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Africa.

Housing is only part of the challenge, however. The sanitary situation in Haiti, Boyd said, is "quite bad; people are doing their business wherever there's a bush to crouch behind. It's extremely unsanitary." There is a rising fear of water-borne diseases, from diarrhea to typhoid fever.

"I have heard anecdotally that those things are starting to crop up," he said. "And ... they become more of an issue during the rainy season."

CRS' plans call for the construction of latrines with the transitional housing. They'll be holes in the ground with brick or concrete lining and a slab floor, with structures over them to provide a roof and privacy. The latrines will be lighted and staffed 24 hours a day to keep them clean and safe.

"Sometimes instances of violations of women will happen at night when they go to the toilet," Boyd said.

Prevention of disease will also demand public education about the need for hand-washing, and supplies of soap, clean water and other hygiene products.

All of this is in the works, he said. But the challenges ahead remain enormous.

"It is a pretty desperate situation, one of the worst I've seen," he said. "And that's saying a lot."

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