PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fear and confusion swept over more than 1 million homeless Haitians on Wednesday after officials advised them to abandon tent camps in Haiti's rubble-choked capital before Tropical Storm Tomas arrives.
Few of the earthquake survivors who have spent nearly 10 months alternately baking and soaking under plastic tarps and tents have anywhere to go.
Painfully slow reconstruction from the quake, prior storms and the recent commitment of government resources to fight a growing cholera epidemic have left people with few options as overtaxed aid workers struggle to help.
"We are using radio stations to announce to people that if they don't have a place to go, but they have friends and families, they should move into a place that is secure," said civil protection official Nadia Lochard, who oversees the department that includes Port-au-Prince.
The government says there are more than 1,000 shelters available, but the term is loose and can refer to any building expected to stand up to high winds. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there is a need to identify safe public infrastructure for use as potential storm shelters during the storm.
Tensions boiled over into scuffles at the Corail-Cesselesse camp north of the capital when managers tried to explain without the help of government officials a planned voluntary evacuation of nearly 8,000 people from ShelterBox tents once promised to be hurricane-resistent.
"People said, 'We've been displaced before, what's going to happen to us? Are we going to be able to get back?'" said Bryant Castro, the American Refugee Committee staffer managing the camp.
The tentative plan there, as with several other camps, is to move some people to schools, churches and other structures like an abandoned prison. But most homeless are being told to seek out friends or family who can take them in.
As news of Tomas' predicted pass on Friday slowly filtered through Port-au-Prince via wind-up radios and megaphone announcements, unease set in among people who already lost homes and loved ones in the quake and saw their tents ripped apart in lesser storms this year.
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"The tension is elevated, people are really concerned about their belongings. They're posing a lot of legitimate questions," Castro said.
Concerns are even greater in the western reaches of Haiti's southern peninsula, where heavy flooding is predicted.
Disaster officials have extended a red alert, their highest storm warning, to all regions of the country, as the storm is expected to wind its way up the west coast of Hispaniola through storm-vulnerable Gonaives and Haiti's No. 2 city, Cap-Haitien, sometime Friday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami announced a hurricane warning for Haiti, along with tropical storm watches for Jamaica, the western Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba. A hurricane watch was posted for the southeastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
The storm, which strengthened from a tropical depression during the day, was 295 miles (470 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince with maximum winds of 45 mph (75 kph) late Wednesday. It began to make an expected right turn toward the Greater Antilles, moving north-northwest at 6 mph (9 kph).
Jamaican soldiers will evacuate hundreds of people in the island's eastern region Thursday and move them into emergency shelters ahead of the storm, Information Minister Daryl Vaz said.
"We will be going all out to make good sense prevail," he said at a news conference Wednesday.
Most of the people who will be evacuated are squatters living along unstable gullies that often flood during heavy rainstorms.
Kareen Bennett, a forecaster with Jamaica's Meteorological Service, said heavy rains will lash the eastern region by Friday morning.
Jamaica is still struggling to recuperate from floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Nicole in late September that killed at least 13 people and caused an estimated $125 million in damage.
People who are still using boats to move about in the island's rural western regions also will be moved to shelters, said Ronald Jackson with the emergency management office.
Tomas has already killed at least 14 people and left seven missing in the eastern Caribbean nation of St. Lucia, where it caused more than $37 million in damage. In nearby St. Vincent, the storm wrecked more than 1,200 homes and caused nearly $24 million in damages to crops, especially bananas — one of St. Vincent's top commodities.
It could be the first big storm to strike Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake killed as many as 300,000 people and forced millions from their homes. It would also be the first tropical storm or hurricane to hit since 2008, when Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike battered Haiti in the space of a month, killing nearly 800 people and wiping out 15 percent of the economy.
Aid workers are scrambling to prepare but are badly short of supplies including shelter material because of the responses already under way to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake and an unprecedented cholera outbreak that has killed more than 330 people and hospitalized more than 4,700.
A U.S. Navy vessel, the amphibious warship Iwo Jima, was steaming toward Haiti to provide disaster relief.
An enormous international aid effort flowed into Haiti in the immediate wake of the quake, but reconstruction has barely begun, in part because donors have not come through with promised funds. The United States has not provided any of the $1.15 billion in reconstruction aid it pledged last March.
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