The first heavy rain since the earthquake doused Haiti's capital Thursday night, soaking hundreds of thousands of homeless in a city where barren hillsides and weakened buildings are threatening to give way.
The storm hit as relief officials changed tack on dealing with quake survivors, delaying plans to build big refugee camps outside the capital. Instead, they want the homeless to pack up their tents and tarps and return to destroyed neighborhoods.
People dashed for shelter down streets streaming with runoff from the driving tropical rain. The downpour swept trash along roadside gutters, clogging drains and turning depressions into ponds.
Some women stripped naked and took advantage of the downpour to take a shower — there are no bathing facilities in overcrowded tent camps that officials want to decongest.
With the official rainy season still a month away, forecasters warned that the storm, the first since the Jan. 12 quake, could bring floods and mudslides to a population in a perilous state. Many dwellings are severely damaged or clinging to the sides of hillsides.
People who lined up at a downtown site Thursday morning to register for the new campaign to resettle more than 1.2 million Haitians expressed skepticism and were dismissive of the plan, and relief officials acknowledged its immense challenges.
"There will be flooding. There will be discomfort, misery. And that's not avoidable," a top U.N. official for Haiti, Anthony Banbury, told a New York news conference this week.
Gerald-Emile Brun, an architect with the government's reconstruction committee, agreed. "Everything has to be done before the start of the rainy season, and we will not be able to do it," he said Thursday.
Brun suggested that Haitians, who expect little of their corrupt and inefficient government, may largely be left to sort it out themselves.
Left homeless by quake
Camp dwellers — the capital alone has some 770,000 — welcomed the idea of swapping flimsy makeshift tents in the city's fetid center for something more stable. But that didn't mean they wanted to return to their quake-ravaged neighborhoods.
Jean Petion Simplice, a 44-year-old father living with his two boys, wife and mother-in-law under a scrap of sheet in the capital, said he feared returning to his district, which is a shambles.
"They're going to remove us from here, but they won't tell us where we're going," he complained as he joined a line of hundreds to get registered at the Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the collapsed National Palace.
The International Organization for Migration began registration at the plaza Wednesday, collecting people's old addresses in hopes that most can be resettled relatively quickly in their old neighborhoods.
The camp is home to some 60,000 people and was chosen to begin registration because about 45 percent of its residents come from a single Port-au-Prince neighborhood, Turgeau, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Blackwell, who is involved in coordinating the plan.
Not everyone will be able to return to their neighborhood, but relief officials expect to know within two weeks who can after determining which structures are viable and which must be demolished, Blackwell said.
Mark Turner, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that "this is the big new strategy, our big push right now" — to decongest overcrowded and unsanitary camps. "Most people have some kind of tent or structure. We want to be able to tell people, 'Just pack it up and take it home.'"
Haitian President Rene Preval described the new plan Thursday to visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, saying the idea is to create small camps of 50, 60 or even 100 tents.
Silva, whose troops are leading a six-year-old U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, expressed support for the strategy but said the effort would be challenging because of all the heavy equipment needed to clear neighborhoods of rubble.
"The problem for Brazil and the U.N. teams is to determine the machinery needed do this work," he said.
Task of rebuilding
It is a mammoth task.
Preval has said it would take 1,000 trucks and 1,000 days — more than three years. Brun, of the reconstruction committee, said the government has about 250 trucks and can probably find another 250 in the private sector.
Col. Rick Kaiser, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operation in Haiti, told The Associated Press that the rubble would fill the New Orleans Superdome five times over.
Brun described a lengthy process to get the new strategy moving. Blackwell said engineers have only assessed about 25 percent of the Turgeau neighborhood — so it will take at least until late March to sufficiently clear enough rubble to enable resettlement of the throngs jamming the Champ de Mars.
Officials haven't even decided who will do the demolition and rubble removal, Blackwell said. Could U.S. Army engineers be dispatched to do it?
"I don't see it," Blackwell said.
In the meantime, many people remain terrified of another quake.
The U.S. Geological Survey published a new study this week warning that aftershocks — the city has suffered dozens — will continue for many months and almost certainly one will be stronger than a magnitude 5 in the next year. Quake-damaged buildings are particularly vulnerable.
In a parallel resettlement strategy, Brun said the government has been identifying sites outside Port-au-Prince and four other hard-hit towns where it could appropriate land as sites for transitional camps.
Officials say the government would compensate owners for land taken, but land tenure is a politically volatile issue in Haiti, where the courts are clogged with tens of thousands of land disputes.
"The lack of identified land is the dominating issue for shelter," said a report released Thursday by a "shelter cluster" of U.N., U.S. and independent groups working with the government on the issue. So for now, priority is going to the plan to resettle people on the ruins of their old homes or close by.