Thursday, February 4, 2010

Not tents

February 4, 2010
Rebuilding Effort in Haiti Turns Away From Tents

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Shifting tactics in the race to shelter an estimated
one million Haitians displaced by the earthquake, aid groups on Wednesday
began to de-emphasize tents in favor of do-it-yourself housing with
tarpaulins at first, followed by lumber.

Mark Turner, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration,
said that a move toward “transitional shelters” — built eventually with
lumber and some steel — would give people sturdier structures and more

“Tents really have a shelf life of not much more than six months,” Mr.
Turner said. In contrast, he added: “You can stand up in a shelter that you
build. You can start a business there.”

Officials from the migration agency said they were hoping to give people the
means to create temporary housing, and the power to build where they wanted.
They acknowledged that it could be five years before most people moved back
into houses, which means that under the current best-case situation,
Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, will soon be blanketed with hundreds of
thousands of simple structures that designers describe as “garden sheds” and
others see as shanties.

It reflects what emergency shelter experts here describe as an emerging
consensus, born in part from the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004.
There, aid groups that built concrete homes in large tracts found that few
people were interested in moving from where they had lived before the
disaster. Transitional shelters were quicker to set up and allowed people to
stay put while continually improving their own homes over time.

The model, cited by a senior shelter adviser, is Sri Lanka, where residents
using building materials and design guidelines from aid groups built 56,000
transitional shelters in seven months, housing 92 percent of the displaced
families in about a 550-mile area.

But in Haiti, the challenge will be even greater. There is a hard deadline:
hurricane season starts on June 1. And compared with Sri Lanka, there are
far more Haitians without homes, and in a densely packed urban area with
rubble crowding nearly every street.

Mr. Turner, along with Haitian government officials, said that the shelter
plan would work only if demolition and debris removal moved quickly.

“We need to put in place a process that is fast and dynamic for clearing the
rubble and creating spaces that are small,” said Charles Clermont, a
prominent businessman and adviser to President René Préval. He added that
people living in camps on public land — outside the National Palace, for
example — would be given incentives to guide them to other places, or moved
by legal means if they refused.

The goal would be to minimize relocation, to help people move back to where
they lived before the earthquake and to make clear that their living
situations would not be permanent. “If it’s where a building was, you know
it’s temporary,” Mr. Clermont said.

Large camps of tents outside the city — the idea originally promoted by the
Haitian government, and the International Organization for Migration — will
continue to be part of the plan at a few locations. But to avoid creating
huge refugee camps permanently dependent on foreign aid, officials said the
camps would become the exception, not the rule.

The same goes for tents.

So far, aid groups have given out more than 10,000 family tents, and there
are 55,000 more in stock or being sent to Haiti, according to the migration
organization. There are already more tarpaulins in the pipeline: 100,000 are
in stock or have been handed out, and 176,000 are on the way.

Lumber, according to the organization, has been making its way by ship and
over land, to be distributed as quickly as possible.

Officials are also trying to recruit Haitian comedians to promote the plans.
And in meetings, they have discussed whether to create demonstration
shelters, built to designs laid out by aid groups like Shelter Center, which
could be set up at the 16 sites now being used to distribute aid.

Haitians, though, may be hard to convince. Most of the tarpaulins being
distributed are enormous, big enough for four 10-foot-square shelters. And
people do want them. Near a handful of makeshift camps in the neighborhood
of Canapé-Vert, hundreds of people lined up on Wednesday to take one.

But nearly everyone in line said he would rather have a tent.

“With a tent, you can close it and stay inside, so you’re safe,” said Joseph
Jimmy, 29, who said he needed to find shelter for his family of 11. “With a
tarp you’ll still get wet.”

When told about the plan to give Haitians lumber and corrugated steel, Mr.
Jimmy became more interested. He nodded, thought about it and, like many
Haitians, said he was most concerned about when or if the promise would be

“If they come step by step and they really do come, O.K.,” he said. “But I
don’t know. If not, I want a tent.”

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