Three months after a devastating earthquake destroyed great swaths of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, some of those left homeless and sheltering in makeshift camps are on the move again—this time to a dusty, windswept area about 12 miles north of the city.
It’s called Corail Cesselesse, a resettlement site identified by the Haitian government and intended to accommodate 7,500 people now camped with tens of thousands of others on the steep slopes of a golf course in Port-au-Prince. With the arrival of the rainy season, many people at the golf course are in grave danger because of the potential for mudslides.
Under exceedingly tight time constraints, aid organizations, including Oxfam, have been racing to help prepare the new site by installing latrines, shower stalls, and water bladders. Aid organizations received only one week’s notice about the relocation—not nearly enough time for anyone.
“We realize this is an emergency relocation due to impending rains and we are moving with the utmost urgency to prepare the site,” said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in Haiti. “But future moves cannot be done in this last-minute fashion. The government and the international community must ensure that any moves are well-planned and adhere to humanitarian principles that ensure people’s safety and respect their rights.”
Despite the short notice, CNN reported that on Saturday, about 60 people made the trek—via bus on a ride that took an hour—from the over-crowded golf course to the new site, which was still under construction. News accounts report that shelters made of wood will eventually replace the tents being erected for families.
Shelter remains a priority
For now, many people continue to live under plastic tarps. The provision of shelter remains one of the top priorities for aid groups, which hope to reach 1.2 million people by May 1. Together, they have reported distributing more than 330,480 tarps—or enough to serve 826,200 people. Additionally, more than 43,000 tents have been distributed and that’s helping another 215,000 people.
But recent figures from the field now indicate that there could be hundreds of thousands more people —beyond the 1.2 million—who also need emergency shelter. In the early days after the quake, an estimated 600,000 residents left the capital and sought refuge with host families in rural areas. Oxfam is now hearing that some of those displaced people have returned to the city.
When it comes to emergency shelter, aid groups have favored distributing tarps over tents in these early months because of their versatility: Tarps can serve as stand-alone shelters or they can be used to waterproof people’s damaged homes, allowing them to stay in their communities. And in many places, where mounds of rubble have yet to be removed, there isn’t always enough space for setting up whole tents.
Across Port-au-Prince and beyond into Jacmel, Gressier, Leogane, Grand Goave and Petit Goave, aid organizations have counted 651 spontaneous camps. Many are far too crowded and not suitable for housing people for long periods of time.
One option for easing the crowding is to help people return to their homes when they are deemed safe. Oxfam has been providing structural engineers to help with this. In conjunction with others, the Haitian Ministry of Public Works has so far assessed 14,439 buildings to determine if they can be lived in. Of those surveyed, 53 percent have been declared safe. Another 30 percent—or 4,331 houses—need some work before they can be lived in safely. And 16 percent, or 2,310 houses, are too damaged to save. Instead, they need to be demolished so the land beneath them can be used for transitional shelters.
With the hurricane season just weeks away—it starts in June—the pressure is growing to find safe shelter solutions for displaced people. Besides moving back into homes that engineers say are safe, setting up shelter on a plot cleared of debris, or staying with a host family, the choices for people include remaining in the camps where they already are, or moving to a temporary relocation site—like Corail Cesselesse.
Though Oxfam considers sites like this the option of last resort, it acknowledges that some people will need to move into them. But, like in Corail Cesselesse, those moves should remain voluntary and the sites should be developed in consultation with people who will be living there. That takes time, as does the physical site preparation. Oxfam is urging the government to move faster to identify appropriate sites. It has also called on the government to ensure that the new camps are ready to receive earthquake survivors before more evacuations take place.