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Haiti Scrambles to Find Shelter for Quake Survivors

February 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Haiti's heavy spring rains are getting closer, but as Ray Suarez reports, millions of earthquake survivors are still living in Port-au-Prince under rigged up tarps and bedsheets.
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JIM LEHRER: Haiti is next.

Some parents in a village outside the capital told the Associated Press today they willingly gave up their children to American missionaries. That contradicts claims by the Baptist group’s leader that the children came from orphanages or distant relatives.

And, at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon asked President Bill Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, to coordinate international relief efforts.

Ray Suarez reports on the enormous challenges still ahead to find shelter and food for the earthquake victims.

RAY SUAREZ: On the day before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince and nearby towns formed a sprawling, crowded metropolitan area of something approaching three million people.

After January 12, here’s a rough thumbnail census. About a million still live in intact homes. About a million have fled to the countryside, and about a million are still here with no place to live.

The homeless have stripped branches from trees, pounded them into the ground, rigged up tarps and bedsheets, hauled scrap wood and metal away from damaged buildings, and built a constellation of teeming cities within the city.

Settlements have no running water, no garbage collection, few systems for collecting human waste. They will do for now, because there’s really no other choice. The Haitian government has scrambled to put together a plan to house hundreds of thousands of people before the spring rains begin, even as new makeshift camps spring up on every empty patch of ground.

Patrick Delatour, the minister of tourism in the Haitian government, has been appointed by President Rene Preval to run the assessment of damage and building of new shelters and structures. His office is really the cell phone constantly at his side and in his ear as he rushes from meeting to meeting.

PATRICK DELATOUR, minister of tourism, Haiti: We are dealing with a people that has 200 years of individual survival skill, and they are making decisions independently of the government, and not waiting for the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Which is good and bad. Across from the ruins of the national palace, thousands of people have settled on the grounds of a national park. There is a barber shop, an Internet cafe and the mouthwatering smell of food cooking wafting through the camp.

It shows how resourceful and tough these people really are, but also how hungry and, increasingly, impatient. This is the Mais Gate camp out near the airport, between 10,000 and 12,000 people on a few acres by a traffic circle.

In some ways, this camp has been relatively fortunate. A committee established itself right after the earthquake to provide civil authority to the day-to-day life here. There have gotten regular water shipments, and they are making the transition from these homemade shelters to modern weatherproof tents. But there’s been no security, and, until almost three weeks after the earthquake, no food delivered.

And it wasn’t going well. The Colombian Red Cross was trying to give out family food kits. Thousands who had first waited in line for coupons were now in long, snaking columns waiting for food, and surrounded by hundreds more of the hungry.

Without security, without a workable system for handing out the boxes, it was a mess, and the Colombians finally closed the doors to the shipping container.

Milcon Couronne is leader of the committee trying to run the camp.

MILCON COURONNE, camp committee leader (through translator): The biggest problem is distribution. Every time they try to give something out, a small percentage gets a lot, and a large percentage doesn’t get anything.

RAY SUAREZ: Couronne and his committee have made a census of all the camp residents, and offered to help aid donors organize food drops. He says the committee was ignored. Could they do better?

MILCON COURONNE (through translator): I can’t guarantee it, but, if they gave us containers and gave us the food, we could make sure it doesn’t happen this way again.

RAY SUAREZ: Trying to help the Colombians was 29-year-old Rachelle Garnier, who lives with her 9-year-old son in a collection of sticks and bedsheets.

RACHELLE GARNIER, Haiti (through translator): People here have been really hungry. When food came for distribution, it was really voracious. People didn’t act the way they’re supposed to, and there is a lot of food left, but there weren’t people to distribute. So, we asked if they could please come back again.

RAY SUAREZ: No food, no security right across the street from a large encampment of U.S. military and pallets piled high with supplies. The people of Mais Gate have been promised more tents in the coming days.

DR. FRANCK GENEUS, director, Haiti Public Health Program, CARE: I think the big issue is, first of all, to try to tackle — to try to prevent the outbreak of epidemics.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Franck Geneus of CARE decided to return home to Haiti two weeks before the earthquake. His own house destroyed, by day, he practices medicine in the camps. He is in temporary housing now. His extended family is living in the courtyard in front of their home.

Dr. Geneus worried of outbreaks of diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria among the poorest Haitians in the packed camps. But he’s also worried about the professional class. They’re not getting much help, and the country needs them more than ever.

DR. FRANCK GENEUS: People that have their house, they are generally — they belong generally from the mid-upper class. And, generally, mid-upper class is not too attractive for humanitarian people, humanitarian workers like us.

RAY SUAREZ: They are as vulnerable as the poor, but they’re also more mobile.

DR. FRANCK GENEUS: They have lost their houses. They have lost their way of living. They have lost — you know that lots of schools have been destroyed as well, so you got the children. My kids, for instance, is not going to school. And these are situations that we don’t know how to deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Listen to Philesten Sony. He’s not faring well on the now meaner streets of Port-au-Prince.

PHILESTEN SONY, Haiti (through translator): I personally haven’t received anything. I’m a teacher at a school. I’m not used to fighting, standing in line, fighting for things.

RAY SUAREZ: The schools are wrecked. The government has promised reopened schools by March. Sony is considering his options, like joining a brother in New York.

At the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Tim Callaghan, leader of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, briefs his staff on the work of the day ahead. Callaghan chooses not to stress new tents as heavily as hosting, getting people with housing intact or repairable to take in people from the encampments.

TIM CALLAGHAN, disaster assistance response team, USAID: How can we locate those folks and assist the families who are taking in or hosting people? I think the other aspect we’re looking at it is shelter kits, where we can bring in materials. For example, USAID has plastic sheeting that is durable during the rainy season.

RAY SUAREZ: For Callaghan, the appeal lies in being able to get people indoors quickly and create employment in rehabbing houses.

The people of Port-au-Prince are getting back to work. Private, public, and NGO employers are paying crews to clear debris. Callaghan notes, rubble can be recycled, and materials like steel bars can be reclaimed, instead of toted to a dump.

TIM CALLAGHAN: Certainly, we — we need to look at strategies that are within five months to address all the issues, simply because the rains are coming. And we know that.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, Minister Delatour is meeting with a Haitian brain trust, architects, designers, planners, all getting ready to house people and his government. But the rumor mill has not helped. First came word of 200,000 tents coming to Haiti.

PATRICK DELATOUR: Somebody else said that there were 20,000 tents in Port-au-Prince ready for distribution. Somebody even said that those tents had been given to the Haitian government. The reality of it is that, at the most, at that time — and I’m talking two days ago — there were only 3,000 tents in Port-au-Prince.

RAY SUAREZ: A drop in the bucket, really. Delatour said his government has to move quickly to make sure people don’t build fragile homes on vulnerable land through regulation, something Haitians have never done before. Delatour called it learning the lessons of this disaster.

JIM LEHRER: Ray’s next report will look at rebuilding Haiti’s government.