News and analysis
April 20, 2010

Charities Move Quickly to Find Housing for Haiti Earthquake Victims Before the Rains Begin

With the May rainy season fast closing in on Port-au-Prince, charity workers in Haiti are undertaking a massive effort to make sure the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the January earthquake have adequate shelter.

Charities and relief officials are encouraging some Haitians to return to buildings deemed safe by engineers while other earthquake survivors will get assistance to stay on their own properties. Still others will have to move to rural areas.

The most vulnerable Haitians—some 250,000 people—must resettle completely because the camps where they now live are vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.

For Haitians like Pierre Benito, the difference will be virtually immediate. Mr. Benito lives with his wife, two children, aunt, niece, and sister in a 12-foot square patch of grass across from the crumbled presidential palace. They string tarps from poles to protect themselves from the elements. But when it rains, the plastic does not provide enough protection.

“We spend the night standing,” Mr. Benito says. “I’m ready to go anywhere they want to take me, but it has to be comfortable.”

Mr. Benito received his tarps from Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore charity that has distributed more than 20,000 plastic sheets in the city’s two largest spontaneous settlements. Catholic Relief Services has raised $127.9 million since the earthquake.

“It’s a pretty tremendous responsibility, but it opens up a lot of opportunities,” said Isaac Boyd, an architect and technical adviser to the charity, “We are focusing on seven [areas] right now. Those are the biggest priority for finding better, safer situations [for people].”

Other charities are also distributing tarps. World Vision, which has raised $33-million for Haiti relief, has distributed 18,000 tarps and is prepared to give out temporary shelters, but finding land for resettlement has been a constant challenge. In late March, the Haitian government obtained its first piece of land for that purpose, and in early April, the first of some 9,000 of the most vulnerable Haitian residents were relocated there.

“Unfortunately, there was a delay by the government deciding how they were going to deal with the land issue,” said Lewis Lucke, U.S. special coordinator for relief and reconstruction in Haiti.

Mr. Lucke says the Haitian government has now obtained one other private parcel and made available three government parcels for further resettlement.

But Elizabeth Satow, World Vision’s deputy response manager for Haiti, questions whether it will be enough.

“We need more land to cover all the people who need shelter,” she said, adding that World Vision is concentrating on providing good sanitation in the camps as people wait.

Trauma Counseling

In Carrefour, one of the poorest and most damaged sections of Port-au-Prince, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency is using the $6-million it raised for Haiti relief, to work with about 24,000 people who live in a tent city on the campus of Haitian Adventist University.

Andrew Lucas, who directs the Adventist group’s overseas responses to disasters, says a team of peer counselors has been trained by psychologists to help people deal not only with the trauma of the earthquake but also with the emotional impact of resettlement.

“Some people’s homes are completely destroyed and some people, they’re not sure how structurally sound [their homes] are so they’re afraid to go back,” he said.

But as relief workers have rushed to get ready for the rains, they are increasingly encouraged by one fact. By the end of March, the United Nations says, engineers had assessed 15,000 homes in Port-au-Prince, finding that more than half of them were inhabitable and that 30 percent more could be livable with repairs. Only 16 percent needed to be torn down.

Engineers from the Mennonite Central Committee have been part of the assessment effort. In just three months, the committee raised more than $4.5-million from American donors, using part of it to finance a team of up to five structural engineers to assess churches, schools, and homes.

Now, with an eye to preventing damage in future natural disasters, the team also offers seminars on how to build strong­er bricks for construction.

Says Kurt Hildebrand, who oversees Haiti efforts by the Mennonite Central Committee: “People are really hungry to know what can be done differently to make buildings safer.”