Ask any of the hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims living outdoors in Haiti's shattered capital and you're apt to get the same plea: "Give us a tent."
Few will get one. Aid agencies and Haitian officials have given up plans to shelter the homeless in tents, even if that means many will likely face hurricane season camped out under flapping sheets of plastic.
Tents are too big, too costly and too inefficient, aid groups say. So Haitians must swelter under flimsy tarps until fixed shelters can be built — though no one believes nearly enough can be will be up in time for spring storms.
"A tent would give us more space. There are too many people in here," said Marie-Mona Destiron, sweating under the hot blue light of her family's donated plastic tarp. When it rains, she said, water slides through the gaps and turns the dirt floor to mud.
Destiron, 45, got her tarp from U.S. soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division. Her husband, Joselin Edouard, tied it to a thin mahogany tree on a dusty slope below the country club that the soldiers use as a forward-operating base. It is home to them and their six children.
The Destiron family tarp site sits atop what passes for pretty good real estate in post-quake Port-au-Prince. The family is near where soldiers distribute food, though when helicopters land, it's blasted by dirt and leaves. They moved in the day after the Jan. 12 catastrophe shattered their concrete home.
But theirs is a space prone to floods and mudslides. And come the spring rains — not to mention the hurricanes of summer and fall — they and many other Haitians are vulnerable.
International aid officials at first announced a campaign to put the homeless in tents and appealed for donations from around the world. Some 49,000 tents had reached Haiti when the government announced Wednesday it was opting for plastic sheets.
With an estimated 1.2 million people displaced by the earthquake — some 770,000 of them still in the capital — officials say there is no room for family-sized tents with their wide bases.
Besides, they are bulky and don't last long enough to justify their cost, the aid community has decided.
Further, the cluster of foreign and Haitian officials in charge of shelter decisions does not trust the mishmash of aid organizations involved to buy the right ones.
It has issued a warning that only that those with "existing expertise in the procurement of humanitarian tents" should buy them, saying that after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, 80 percent of tents distributed were not waterproof.
Instead the officials are mobilizing a plan they call the "shelter surge:"
- By May 1, one plastic tarp will be given to each of about 250,000 displaced families.
- Transitional shelters of 194 square feet, with corrugated iron roofs, will then be built.
- Shelters will have earthquake- and storm-resistant frames of timber or steel and are supposed to last for three years.
But putting up such shelters will take serious time and effort. Land must be procured. Money — at least $1,000 per transitional home — must be found. And desperate people who just weeks ago lost their homes must be persuaded to relocate yet again, and getting them to abandon neighborhoods and friends won't be simple.
"This is a big problem. We need to move people and they need to agree to move," U.N. Under-Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said after visiting tarp cities in the quake-decimated city of Leogane.
EU operations to step in
Getting even the bulk of that done before the June 1 start of hurricane season seems unlikely. And plenty of people — including politicians from donor nations as well as today's tarp-dwellers — are concerned.
The European Union said Thursday that it would mount a military operation — including heavy equipment and engineers — to level the ground for the shelters and put them up. It did not say how many troops would be sent, by which nations or when.
"I hope it happens soon. Let's see how effective the European military are," said Edmond Mulet, the acting U.N. envoy to Haiti.
A delegation of visiting U.S. lawmakers led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised concerns over tarps in a Friday meeting with President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.
"We can't just put tarps up in those low-lying areas and hope for the best," said Senator George LeMieux, a Florida Republican.
Preval declined to answer questions about the problem after the meeting. But in a hushed voice, he expressed concern in side conversations with aides.
Asked about tents vs. tarps, Pelosi simply replied: "That's a decision that has to be made here."
Ironically, many of those charged with deciding are themselves sleeping in tents.
U.N. civilian staff, who lost their peacekeeping headquarters and other buildings in the quake, have turned their airport logistics base into a tent-and-trailer city. Foreign soldiers sleep in camouflage tents all over town. U.S. diplomats are bivouacked on the 18-month-old $75 million 10-acre embassy compound. Journalists and aid workers have their own, pitched behind walls and beside hotel pools.
The sealed edges, covered floors and ability to close a door affords comfort. And those who have received them are appreciative.
Micheline Antoine, 25, had been living under a cloth bedsheet with her daughter and a friend near the collapsed high school of St. Louis de Gonzague until Doctors Without Borders gave the residents broad white domes last week.
They crowd each other, leaving little room to walk, but give more space inside.
"When I'm in the tent I'm not going to get wet ... and I can close the door, so my things won't be stolen," Antoine said.
Space is tight in the tarp-dominated camps as well. In Leogane, Holmes viewed camps whose populations are exploding as people cluster in areas where aid is being distributed. Aides said one camp grew from 30 to 3,000 people in the last week.
On the Port-au-Prince golf course, Destiron's family does not have much space either.
One of Destiron's walls consists mostly of the neighbor's lean-to.
Scrap wood for poles is getting hard to find, and newcomers arrive every day. One newcomer could no longer afford the rent for her home because nobody was buying clothes she sold in the street.
Destiron's 22-year-old son, Daniel Maxi, lay on a scavenged piece of dirty orange carpet atop flattened cardboard boxes wincing with fever and stomach pains.
Competing hymns from two weekend memorial services for the 200,000 earthquake dead mixed in the air as helicopters roared low overhead.
What would make this tarp more of a home? More material, perhaps. Beds for the kids. But what about something more permanent?
Destiron thinks for a moment, sweat streaming down her face.
"I would like to live in my house," she says. "That would be best."