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In Search of Shelter, Haitians Flee Port-au-Prince

January 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Haitian officials reported that some 200,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince as the government considers building new tent cities outside the capital. Margaret Warner speaks with Jay Newton Small of TIME magazine.
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JIM LEHRER: The exodus from Haiti’s shattered capital kept building today. Aid officials reported 200,000 Haitians have fled Port-au-Prince. The government talked of setting up vast new tent cities. And an 84-year-old woman was pulled alive from the rubble, after 10 days.

Margaret Warner talked earlier today with Jay Newton-Small of “TIME” magazine from Port-au-Prince.

MARGARET WARNER: Jay Newton-Small, thank you for joining us.

We are hearing reports of tens of thousands, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Haitians, fleeing the city. What have you seen?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: I have certainly seen that.

The port is clogged with ferries of, you know, Haitians trying to leave to go to safer areas. Les Cayes is a very popular place which wasn’t at all affected by the earthquake. It’s down south from here. People are trying to get anywhere out of town.

If you go out into the suburbs towards — when you drive towards the Dominican Republic, everybody who has got family anywhere outside of Port-au-Prince has definitely gone to the suburbs, gone to be with their family outside of Port-au-Prince, because they are terrified of these tremors that keep happening. And they are worried that this — another big one could hit again.

MARGARET WARNER: And then we also hear that the government is, one, not standing in the way of this, and, two, is planning to build tent cities outside of town.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Well, frankly, one of the problems that Haiti had, even before this disaster, was that it was too much of an urban country. There was too much focus on the economy of Port-au-Prince, and not much else on the economies of other parts of the country.

So, a lot of experts in Haiti believe that, with the population diversifying, going out, restarting agrarian businesses, restarting towns that are out in the middle of nowhere, or at least right now in the middle of nowhere, compared to Haiti, they are diversifying the economy, and that will actually help, which is why the government is encouraging them to do it.

Now, in order to do so, they are building tent cities. There’s one in Croix-des-Bouquets, which is just outside of town here, where they are building a tent city for about 10,000 people. So, they are saying, look, downtown Port-au-Prince is really clogged with ad hoc tent cities everywhere and that it is better in terms of the crowding, in terms of health, for people to spread out. And it’s also in terms of safety. So, they are encouraging this.

MARGARET WARNER: Now who is building the tent cities, and how far along are they? How soon do you they think they will be inhabitable?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: The government is behind the tent cities, but they are helped with the — but they are being built with the help of the United Nations, with other countries, including the United States.

In fact, there is a tent city not far from where I am standing in Petionville that is actually being administered by the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army, which is home to about an estimated 75,000 people already.

But the tent cities that are — that are now being built are actually farther out of town than even Petionville. And they will include just simply tents to begin with, but farther down the road they are hoping to include more permanent structures, since we are coming up to in four weeks time the rainy season and then soon after the hurricane season, and obviously tents aren’t very good for that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, back in the city, where you have all these makeshift settlements, what is the aid distribution system like there. Is it any better than say yesterday or the day before?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Aid is getting better and better every day. Every day, I see more water trucks on the street, more food trucks distributing aid. There are still long lines for it. Because food is still so expensive here, everything is price-gouged.

So, for example, if your eyedrops cost $3 before the earthquake, they now cost $30. You know, everything is incredibly expensive. One tank of gas last week cost us $160. Now that is down to $50. But, you know, the stores are opening, but things are incredibly expensive, and people haven’t been paid. They haven’t been working. They have used up all their savings or their savings are under the rubble of a bank or under rubble of their home. So, they have no way of paying for this incredibly expensive food.

And that’s why you see such long lines at banks, as well as food distribution centers, because people are literally starving, but as — again, food is easing and things are getting better and better with every day that we have seen.

MARGARET WARNER: And you mentioned banks reopening. What other signs have you seen that normal life might be returning?

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: You know, I visited my first pharmacy yesterday, which is why I was thinking about eyedrops.

When you go outside of the airport, there’s these little touristy stores that sell sort of African carvings, which have cropped up. There’s some supermarkets that have opened, but lines for them are pretty long.

There’s — you know, I saw car dealers open. I saw a really long line for a hardware store, as people are trying to rebuild their homes. So, here and there, there are places opening. And banks — today, actually, the first wire service agency opened. So, a lot of people lined up for remittances from the United States. And they are hoping to open up another three of those tomorrow.

So, it is not exactly normal life. There is a lot of waiting in line. But it’s getting to be at least you can access services if you have enough patience.

MARGARET WARNER: Jay Newton-Small of “TIME” magazine, thank you.

JAY NEWTON-SMALL: Thank you.