Mon, February 08, 2010
World > Americas > Strong quake rocks Haiti

Haitians confront new threat: deadly spring rains

2010-02-09 00:43:44 GMT2010-02-09 08:43:44 (Beijing Time)  SINA.com

Two women pray outside the National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Feb. 8, 2010. Thousands were killed and many displaced after Haiti's Jan. 12 powerful earthquake.(AP Photo

Survivors of Haiti's catastrophic earthquake have had one saving grace: There's been no significant rain since the disaster. But that won't last.

The rainy season in Haiti is deadly even in a good year. Now, in a devastated capital city, the early spring rains threaten to cause landslides and bring about health problems in the makeshift camps where more than 500,000 people are living.

Rain is already falling in some parts of the country, but Haiti's shattered capital, where most of the quake damage occurred, has been spared so far — a rarity for this time of year, when afternoon showers are common. Steady rains could come as soon as the end of the month, and hurricane season begins in June.

Workers are racing to move victims outside of flood plains and into tents. They are also trying to clear tons of debris from ravines, canals and riverbeds, so rain does not turn the survivors' encampments into breeding grounds for disease.

"There will be health concerns," said engineer Mario Nicoleau of the U.S. Agency for International Development's office in Haiti. "The risks will be enormous, and it is difficult to contemplate the unforeseen consequences."

Haiti's government said it needs more money or tents if people are to be moved.

"We are going to have a big problem when the rainy season starts," said Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime. "We don't have $60 million to buy 100,000 tents."

Haitians are fearful. Jeanne Marceus, 40, is camped out with hundreds of others under plastic tarps just feet from the Bois de Chene River. On one side, dozens of houses lie flattened from the quake. On the other, a dozen dwellings that slid off the mountain during 2008 rains are piled in a mound.

"Every day we look at the sky for clouds," she said. "My house is gone, and now I'm wondering whether I will be swallowed by the river."

Hurricanes, tropical storms and floods are a constant threat in Haiti.

In 2004, some 3,000 people died in the northern city of Gonaives after Tropical Storm Jeanne. Following the storm, more than $70 million in aid was collected, but little of that was used for flood control. Gonaives flooded again in 2008, killing nearly 800 more.

Before the earthquake, aid groups were already trying to mitigate risks to flood-prone areas: building walls to stabilize hills, installing drainage systems and working with farmers to plant crops with root systems that help hold water. Much of that work was suspended after the quake, when aid groups shifted into emergency mode to help survivors.

"We are now considering the setting up of some hazard-resistant or hurricane-proof type of shelter," Kim Bolduc, the U.N. deputy special representative and humanitarian coordinator in Haiti, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York during a teleconference Monday.

But she said the structures are heavy and there needs to be a port opened to get them to the country. The capital's port is still not fully functioning.

"We are trying to identify some sites outside of Port-au-Prince so that people could be evacuated when the rains come," Bolduc said.

The No. 2 official at USAID, Anthony Chan, said the organization's Cash for Work program has employed 6,000 Haitians, many of whom are cleaning irrigation canals in anticipation of the rain.

Demolition crews and workers are piling rubble into designated places, but there's still no long-term plan for debris disposal, and the rains may come before the government settles on one. Engineers are studying how the piles of rubble will shift water flows during flooding.

Haiti's government has talked of trying to relocate earthquake victims to organized camps outside the capital, but so far none has been built.

Oxfam surveyed more than 100 people at one camp last week in the suburb of Petionville and found that fewer than a third would be willing to move to alternate camps. But conditions in the 315 makeshift camps scattered throughout the rubble are increasingly unsuitable.

"Many of the current sites will not be suitable due to the coming raining seasons which, without adequate drainage and sanitation, threatens to wash away shelters and cause health hazards," said Oxfam's Haiti emergency chief, Marcel Stoessel.

Another problem is that some transport routes that opened up between the Dominican Republic and Haiti are now gradually getting flooded due to rains and the rising of the level of the lake, according to Bolduc, the U.N. official.

She said when it rains the lake floods over roads at the crossing point between Jimani and Malpasse. She said the road is normally good for light traffic but since it became the main road into Haiti after the earthquake, the heavy vehicles have caused road damage.

The U.N. mission and the U.S. Army are considering an alternative road that could be strengthened to handle the influx of trucks with relief supplies, she said. Another possibility is using a small road that bypasses the lake and was used in the past by smugglers, she said.

Another problem is safely removing human waste and garbage.

Justine Lesage, an Oxfam relief worker, said the group recently removed 7,000 cubic feet (200 cubic meters) of waste created by 45,000 people at one of the city's camps in just a week.

"We're also working very hard to make plans for relocating people, but the Haitian government's plan for this is not clear yet," she said.

Many in the camps are already complaining of illnesses. With so many people living outside and using water from buckets, doctors say malaria is on the rise. The coming rains and limited sanitation could also lead to other diseases such as dengue fever, measles and cholera.

For people like Marceus, it's not a question of if the rain will come, but when.

"It took me years to save enough money to build my house here," she said, looking at the ruins of her former home. "Despite all the dangers, I have no plans to leave."

(Agencies)

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