PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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:”
Transitional shelters of 194 square feet, with corrugated iron roofs, will then be built. They 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.