News & Events

In Haiti, the Displaced Are Left Clinging to the Edge


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds of displaced families live perilously in a single file of flimsy shanties planted along the median strip of a heavily congested coastal road here called the Route des Rails.

Vehicles rumble by day and night, blaring horns, kicking up dust and belching exhaust. Residents try to protect themselves by positioning tires as bumpers in front of their shacks but cars still hit, injure and sometimes kill them. Rarely does anybody stop to offer help, and Judith Guillaume, 23, often wonders why.

“Don’t they have a heart, or a suggestion?” asked Ms. Guillaume, who covers her children’s noses with her floral skirt when the diesel fumes get especially strong.

Six months after the earthquake that brought aid and attention here from around the world, the median-strip camp blends into the often numbing wretchedness of the post-disaster landscape. Only 28,000 of the 1.5 million Haitians displaced by the earthquake have moved into new homes, and the Port-au-Prince area remains a tableau of life in the ruins.

The tableau does contain a spectrum of circumstances: precarious, neglected encampments; planned tent cities with latrines, showers and clinics; debris-strewn neighborhoods where residents have returned to both intact and condemnable houses; and, here and there, gleaming new shelters or bulldozed territory for a city of the future.

But the government of Haiti has been slow to make the difficult decisions needed to move from a state of emergency into a period of recovery. Weak before the disaster and further weakened by it, the government has been overwhelmed by the logistical complexities of issues like debris removal and the identification of safe relocation sites.

In some cases, the government has also been politically skittish about, say, creating new slums or encouraging people to return to undamaged homes when the ground beneath them could move again.

In others, it has taken charge but gotten bogged down. Since early May, President René Préval has personally focused, in granular detail, on returning about 11,600 Haitians camped in front of the National Palace to the Fort National neighborhood. But while Fort National is now a beehive of cleanup activity, no transitional shelters have been erected there yet.

In contrast, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, working directly with a hands-on mayor in the Carrefour municipality in metropolitan Port-au-Prince, has already moved more than 500 families from its large tent city into simple pine houses whose concrete foundations incorporate recycled debris.

“Even though I lost my mom in the earthquake, I feel so content, so comfortable and so lucky to have this place,” Ketly Louis, 33, said, welcoming visitors into her new home on the site of the old home that collapsed on her mother.

International organizations here, while empathetic because of the difficulty of issues like land ownership, criticize the government for creating obstacles of its own. Significant delays in clearing supplies through customs, for instance, slow recovery efforts even as they earn the government substantial fees for storage.

And with hurricane season under way and many tents and tarpaulins needing replacement or reinforcement, some humanitarian groups complain about what they see as the government’s failure to articulate a clear resettlement strategy.

“Everywhere I go, people ask me, ‘When will we get out of this camp?’ ” said Julie Schindall, a spokeswoman in Haiti for the international aid group Oxfam. “And I have no answer. There needs to be communication on how all this camp business is going to be resolved.”

Haitian and United Nations officials urge patience in the aftermath of what they call the largest urban disaster in modern history. They point to accomplishments in providing emergency food, water and shelter and averting starvation, exodus and violence.

“What hasn’t happened is worth noting,” said Nigel Fisher, deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary general in Haiti. “We haven’t had a major outbreak of disease. We haven’t had a major breakdown in security.”

Also, they note, the Haitian government, while juggling the sometimes conflicting pressures from international donors, is handicapped by the destruction or damage of most of its ministries and the large numbers of civil servants killed. “I defy any country on earth to be fully functional at this stage after such a disaster,” said Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami of 2004, which left the national government intact, it took more than two years to get the displaced population out of tents, Ms. Wall said.

Mr. Fisher said: “In terms of speed, it’s never fast enough. But this matches what has happened around the world in comparable situations.”

Perilous Settlements

That is little comfort to the residents of the median strip on the Route des Rails.

Since the earthquake, displaced people apparently with no alternatives have planted tenuous roots in the most unsettling places — atop a municipal dump, inside a graveyard, on the bank of a soccer field flooded with contaminated water.

But the median-strip encampment demonstrates acutely both how miserable many settlements are and how they have become hidden in plain sight. Every day, thousands of drivers pass by the threadbare shanties on this coastal thoroughfare.

Only a quarter of the more than 1,200 post-earthquake camps are managed externally by aid organizations; the rest fend for themselves. In the Route des Rails encampment, that means relying on Luma Ludger, the camp leader, who keeps meticulous records in a handwritten ledger — and prays.

“God takes care of us,” Mr. Ludger said. He pointed across the highway. “And we also have those latrines.”

In March, Islamic Aid, a French organization, set up the latrines, which require users to dash through traffic, especially trying for the many camp residents who have diarrhea. The Red Cross also came by and handed out hygiene kits.

“They told us it was very dangerous to be here, and asked what they could do for us,” Mr. Ludger said. “I told them we need land. They said, ‘Wow, we cannot help with that’ and gave us toothpaste.”

Gerta Mojene, a mother of four, asked a reporter how to find a safer place to live. Asked where she might want to go, Ms. Mojene lowered her reddened eyes and said, “Wherever you send me.”

Mr. Ludger said that the mayor had spoken of evicting the median-strip squatters for their safety but had not proposed a substitute location. “Life here is a game of chance, you know,” he said.

A couple dozen residents have been seriously injured by vehicles; they wear casts and slings. At least three have been killed, among them, relatives said, the father of a baby born on the median strip on the evening after the earthquake.

The baby’s name is Katastrof Natirèl — Natural Disaster.

A Presidential Priority

By early spring, when many tent cities appeared to be getting entrenched, President Préval decided to make the large one on the Champ de Mars his personal priority. He wanted to demonstrate the logic of the government’s plan to return displaced people to their original neighborhoods, in this case Fort National. He wanted to show progress and be associated with results.

But Mr. Préval created instead a showcase for the difficulties involved in finding a quick alternative to the camps. Fort National, a densely layered hilltop area badly hit by the quake, proved an especially difficult place to clean up and repopulate first.

The president’s motivation for focusing on the Champ de Mars camp was at least partly political. The raggedy tent city, with its piles of garbage, puddles of standing water, swarms of mosquitoes, packs of thieves and an increasingly restive population, sits in the front yard of the smashed National Palace.

At the camp itself, where residents strip and bathe in the open, squatting over small plastic tubs, many remain unaware that they have become the president’s pet project. “Nobody tells us anything,” said Micheline Félix, 30. “It seems like they’re just waiting for us to wash away with the first big rain.”

But since May, right next door, Mr. Préval has presided over regular, often lengthy meetings of the Champ de Mars-Fort National working group; they begin at 7 a.m. and finish “when the president rises,” said Shaun Scales of the International Organization for Migration.

According to Leslie Voltaire, Haiti’s special envoy to the United Nations, the operating theory was that those with intact homes would be provided some kind of incentive to move back; those with reparable homes would get materials and assistance to fix them; and those with destroyed homes would be given transitional shelters in Fort National or moved to a planned settlement outside Port-au-Prince.

It soon became apparent, however, that Fort National was in very bad shape. In an engineering survey, some 55 percent of its structures received a red tag, meaning they were unsafe and destined for demolition. That is much higher than the average of 24 percent red tags elsewhere.

At the same time, only 18 percent of the homes in Fort National were tagged green, or immediately reinhabitable — compared with 47 percent in other areas surveyed.

Further, rubble removal, a $500 million problem facing the recovery effort, has proved especially difficult in Fort National. International experts say it would take three to five years to remove all the debris from Haiti if 1,000 or more trucks worked daily; fewer than 300 trucks are hauling rubble now. But those trucks cannot penetrate much of Fort National, which has only one main road and lots of steep alleys. In some places, even wheelbarrows cannot be used. Rubble has to be carried out pail by pail, which at least provides jobs.

Tortue Larose, 27, who earns $5 a day cleaning up Fort National, stood at the partly cleared summit of the neighborhood recently, pointing at a speck of green plastic in the dirt: “See that green?” he said. “That’s where my house was. That’s where I was born. That’s where I intend to die.”

Where to dump the rubble that fills Mr. Larose’s buckets presents another problem. There is no debris plan for Fort National just as there is no master plan for rubble removal, said Eric Overvest, the United Nations Development Program’s country director. Normally, he said, a rubble plan is developed within a month of a major disaster. Port-au-Prince, the capital, did not have a pre-earthquake land use plan, complicating matters.

Still, in almost six months the government has identified only one rubble site, the municipal dump called Truitier. More sites are needed — as are decisions on whether rubble will be recycled and how.

Additionally, debris contains personal effects, and sometimes bodies; it also has a potential monetary value if it is to be reused. “It’s not just the rubble, it’s the question of rubble ownership,” Mr. Scales said. Most in Fort National are renters but the rubble technically belongs to the property owners. And sorting out who owns what land, and getting their permission to excavate has proved difficult, Mr. Scales said.

“It isn’t a case of going straight onto land with an excavator,” he said.

For those few whose homes in Fort National are intact, the government has to determine what kind of relocation package to offer. Will they subsidize tenants or landlords? Will they help pay back rent or negotiate some forgiveness? What help will be given those whose homes are reparable and how can repairs be aligned with a building code that has yet to be released? If a one-room transitional shelter is erected where a multifamily dwelling stood, who gets it?

Each issue has generated protracted debate. One international disaster expert, who requested anonymity because he did not want to offend Haitian officials, offered what he called “a microexample” of why bigger questions take a long time to resolve. It involved a flier instructing people on how to secure their tents during the hurricane season.

The government emergency management agency first asked that the phrase “hurricane-proof” be deleted, he said, worried about guaranteeing protection, and then that any reference to strong winds be removed. Finally, only rain could be mentioned and even then the flier did not get approved before hurricane season began.

“It’s as if they imagined themselves to be in a brick and mortar world of real liability,” the disaster expert said. “I think it’s more than lack of capacity by the government. They’re looking at the political landscape, weighing each word like David Axelrod with a focus group.”

Still, many hope that the Champ de Mars process at least lays the groundwork for a speedier resolution of similar problems elsewhere.

And some residents of Fort National, tired of waiting for the government to act, have already moved back, even into dwellings that have been condemned or would be unsafe in a storm.

Negriel Dumas built a roughhewn shack for his family on the barren hilltop. “It’s better to be here with the smell of the dead bodies than to be down at that camp where it stinks of pee,” he said.

Aggressive Advocates

In late April, Rachelle Derosmy’s family of four moved into one of the first transitional shelters to be completed in the Port-au-Prince area. It is a simple pine house, painted grey, with two windows, a concrete foundation and an inclined metal roof fastened with hurricane straps.

“Rain used to fall like a monsoon into our tent,” Ms. Derosmy, 24, said, standing in her 150-square-foot home, which is still bare. “We feel so much better now, more secure. We hope in the future to have beds, too.”

Ms. Derosmy’s new home is in Carrefour, where most of the 1,300 transitional shelters in metropolitan Port-au-Prince have been built. That is partly because Carrefour’s mayor has taken an active role in resolving land issues and partly because the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, long based there, has aggressively negotiated with local officials and landlords. It also settled more quickly than some other aid groups on a shelter design.

Transitional shelters are simple wood or steel-frame structures that offer more space, privacy and protection than tents or tarps. They are meant to last three to five years, tiding over a displaced population while permanent homes are repaired or built. But some disaster experts are ambivalent about them, as is the Haitian president, according to a senior government official. President Préval worries that transitional shelters might never be replaced, the official said, adding, “He thinks he will be attacked for creating new bidonvilles,” or slums.

International experts estimate that Haiti will need 125,000 transitional shelters; so far, just over 5,500 shelters have been completed, mostly in the countryside where land issues are simpler.

In Carrefour, the Adventist agency has set up a well-oiled production workshop, where imported wood is cut and assembled into kits then constructed and painted on site by local workers. Anton De Vries, a South African engineer who runs the shelter operation, which is co-sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development, said he was determined to provide a home for every family in the Adventist-run tent city.

Tall and cheery, Mr. De Vries recently bumped into a local landlord, Henry Frantz St. Surin, on a construction site and displayed some of the hale-and-hearty diplomatic skill that has served him well here. “Thank you for your contribution,” he said in a booming voice. “You are one of the few people who allow others to use their land. I’m sure God will bless you.”

Mr. De Vries also crossed paths with one of his new shelter recipients. “Yoo-hoo!” Ms. Louis cried out to him. She ushered him inside, showing off her décor, a mélange of cloth flowers and stuffed animals, and explained why she preferred her new house to her old one: “If another earthquake happens, this one is not going to kill me.”

Mr. De Vries said his biggest frustration had been bartering with customs authorities. “We work in very close partnership with the Haitian government,” he said with a tight smile. He said that he did not understand why the government did not fast-track emergency supplies and housing materials through its port. He has managed to free 21 shipping containers, enough to complete just over 500 shelters. But another 21 containers have been “held hostage” by the customs agency for more than three weeks now — at a storage fee of almost $16,000 so far.

The port problem has pushed Mr. De Vries to buy local wood. Concerned about deforestation, he did not want to. But he is determined to keep building.

Talk Versus Action

For two months after the quake, Haiti’s architects and planners worked in Pétionville to prepare the post-disaster needs assessment and action plan required to obtain international financial support for the reconstruction of Haiti.

Their dreams were grand. They envisioned Haiti 2030 as a self-reliant, democratically stable, decentralized and reforested land with decent housing and education for all, a national highway network, a hearty fruit and tuber industry, animal husbandry, industrial zones and tourism.

“The government is doing good things in thinking to the future,” said Mario C. Flores, director of disaster response field operations for Habitat for Humanity. “I only wish that all those aspirational plans would become operational.”

At a conference in New York on March 31, donors promised Haiti $5.3 billion over the next 18 months. Two weeks later, although questions about giving up control to foreigners arose, the Parliament approved the creation of an interim reconstruction commission to be led by former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, and Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s prime minister. It took another couple of months to pick its 26 Haitian and international members, and the search for an executive director is still under way.

The reconstruction commission met for the first and only time so far in mid-June.

After that meeting, a Haitian journalist asked why there had been so much talk and so little progress. Mr. Bellerive mentioned road-building and other projects in the countryside and said, “There is a lot being done actually but some of it may not be visible if you confine yourself to the Port-au-Prince area,” where the bulk of the destruction occurred.

Earlier in the spring, Mr. Bellerive and Mr. Voltaire, who is an architect and urban planner, had visited Mr. Clinton at his home in Chappaqua, N.Y. At one point, Mr. Clinton kept getting distracted by incoming e-mail messages. According to Mr. Voltaire, Mr. Clinton said, “If I receive one more suggestion for the ideal house for Haiti, I will explode.” And Mr. Bellerive said, “You, too?”

After that, the government hired a London firm to solicit and sift through proposals for “the best, safest and most sustainable housing designs of the future. “In October, several dozen model homes will be built and displayed at a housing expo in Oranger, Haiti. People will be selected to live in the prototypes and to evaluate them, Mr. Voltaire said.

Eventually, permanent housing will be built, he said, at one of a few sites that the government is seizing through eminent domain and hoping to turn into new population centers.

One of those sites is Corail-Cesselesse, about 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince, where the first planned tent city was installed in April on a chalky gravel plane. Hastily created for displaced people who seemed most at risk from flooding or landslides in another camp, it is now home to about 5,000 who live in an orderly grid of white tents far from their bustling urban neighborhood.

Some aid groups criticize the location. “That site does not represent clear strategic thinking on the part of the government,” said Ms. Schindall of Oxfam. “It’s like the Sudan. There’s not a tree in sight. And people feel marooned. They are having major issues finding income-generating activities and soon they are going to have trouble feeding themselves. It’s inevitable.”

But several residents interviewed seemed willing to tolerate the camp’s remoteness because living there puts them in line for the transitional shelters that are supposed to be erected there, and then for the permanent houses that may follow.

Jean Mérite Pierre, a mason, asked visitors to accompany him to the barren land.

“Look at all this space,” he said, sweeping his arms over an empty lot. “All those people who died lived in houses that collapsed like dominoes. So even if we are uprooted, life could be better here. We were renters, almost all of us. Here, maybe we can own a house someday. That’s what they say. You have to believe them.”