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Haitians confront new threat: spring rains

In Haiti's devastated capital city, early spring rains threaten to cause landslides and bring about health problems in the makeshift camps where more than 500,000 people are living.
Image: makeshift tent at the Cite Soleil
Survivors of Haiti's earthquake in a makeshift tent at the Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince on Feb. 2. Officials are now worried about the coming of deadly spring rains.Eliana Aponte / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 floodplains 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.

'Big problem'
"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.

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.

Plans lacking
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.

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."