Heavy rains underscore shelter needs in Haiti

And then came the rain... Wednesday night, Haiti's capital experienced its heaviest rainfall since the earthquake, a soaking downpour that lasted for several hours. The storm, the second this week, foreshadowed things to come when the rainy season sets in next month.

Marie Lucie Osias and her son
Marie Lucie Osias and her son--the lone survivor of her four children--are living in a makeshift shelter in Port-au-Prince.  With substantial rains already this week, they and many others are hoping for better shelter before the full onset of the rainy season in March.  CWS and the ACT Alliance are working to provide shelter materials and other essentials.
Photo: Jonathan Ernst/ACT Alliance

By Emily Sollie

Port-au-Prince - And then came the rain... Wednesday night, Haiti's capital experienced its heaviest rainfall since the earthquake, a soaking downpour that lasted for several hours. The storm, the second this week, foreshadowed things to come when the rainy season sets in next month.

"It has rained before, but not so hard and so long," said Marie Lucie Osias, 37, who lives in a makeshift shelter in the Delmas 40-B encampment in Petionville, with her 10-year-old son. Her other three children died in the quake.

A home of garbage

"Our clothes got wet, everything got wet. I just tried to keep the water out the best I could," she said. Whenever water started to pool in the tarp that serves as her roof, she would push it up with a stick and try to make sure it ran off to the outside instead of coming in.

The residents of Delmas 40-B and most other encampments in the area live in very small shelters they have constructed from scavenged materials - bed sheets or pieces of plastic strung between sticks, their meager belongings piled inside on dirt floors. A lucky few have found pieces of wood or corrugated metal to put together a slightly more substantial structure. The morning after the rainstorm, the grounds of the camp had turned to thick, slippery mud.

No sleep in the rain

Ouslande Beaubrun, 30, another Delmas 40-B resident, lives with her cousin and two children in a shelter made of bed sheets. The cloth was not keeping the rain out, so they turned their mattress up on its side and spent the night standing on blocks inside their shelter to stay out of the mud. None of them got any sleep, she said. The National Weather Service is predicting above average rainfall for the next two weeks for Haiti, but notes, "excessive rainfall amounts are not expected."

Still, shelter is a major concern, cited by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as one of the most urgent priorities facing the humanitarian community. OCHA estimates that only 24 percent of the 1.3 million people in need of shelter have received tarps or tents.

The CWS-supported ACT Alliance is prioritizing the delivery of shelter items in hopes of reaching as many people as possible before the rains come.

Can't build houses fast enough

"We're all concerned about what to do when the rains come, but it seems the rains are already here - I think it's an early onset rainy season," said Sophie Gebreyes, program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Lutheran World Federation Department of World Service, an ACT Alliance member.

"It's a major concern for us, as for any humanitarian organization working here. We simply cannot build houses fast enough, so we're starting with emergency shelter like distribution of plastic sheeting. We'll also start soon with building transitional shelters, and providing building materials so people can build sturdier shelters before the hurricane season begins." The issues of shelter and sanitation go hand in hand, she said, as the potential dangers of the rainy season include outbreaks of malaria, dengue, and waterborne diseases.

ACT member Diakonie has been providing tents in Jacmel since February 3, and is also planning for a longer-term solution. The idea, said Teodoro Anicceto, Diakonie's emergency response coordinator in Jacmel, is to work with the people currently living in tents to clear the sites where their homes once stood, get them back on their land and in transitional shelters and get the camps cleared as quickly as possible.

Haiti's leadership has also said that shelter is a top priority. "Every time I meet with foreign leaders and delegations, I tell them that is the most urgent need," President Rene Preval told the Reuters news agency. "Now that we've attended to the wounded, taken away the dead, and we're distributing food and water, the problem of shelter... is the most urgent," he said.

"I have no plans"

Similkar Matilde, 40, who lost both her home and her husband in the earthquake, is now struggling to care for her six children. She does not know what she will do when the rainy season comes. "I don't have any plans, so I hope maybe I will receive a tent," she said. "I'm very worried about the rainy season."

ACT Alliance   Emily Sollie of Lutheran World Relief is currently serving as the ACT Alliance communicator in Haiti. Church World Service is member of ACT, an international coalition of churches and related organizations responding to emergencies, collaborating in development work, and providing a shared voice for advocacy.

How to help

Contributions may be made at www.churchworldservice.org/haiti or by phoning 800-297-1516 or by mailing to Church World Service, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515 (please indicate Haiti Earthquake).

Recognized as one of America's Most Efficient Charities, Church World Service has earned an "A" rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy and was named one of the Top 100 Highly Rated Charities by GiveSpot.com.

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