The long road home

By Elizabeth Stevens
Earthquake survivors are taking shelter under whatever material they can find.


In Haiti, life is pared down to the basics. Food is what you can find to put into your mouth, and shelter is whatever comes between you and the sky.  Home - that place you can count on for comfort and safety - is now just a memory and a hope for hundreds of thousands of people.

“The destruction across the capital was stunning, and the sight of countless camps crowded with families gave me a powerful sense of how devastating this earthquake has been for people,” says Oxfam writer Coco McCabe, who recently returned to Boston from Haiti.

The camps are spontaneous, makeshift neighborhoods, marked out by plastic tarps, cardboard, and bed sheets strung between whatever’s there. Posts to hang materials on are in short supply, so people are scavenging wood from the wreckage of buildings.
 
“I saw one man with a flat, wide board, working hard with a small hand saw to cut the board into narrower pieces that could serve as poles for sheets, plastic, scraps of clothing—anything that might offer the semblance of a wall or roof to give families privacy,” says McCabe.

Plastic sheeting strung from poles may seem like a minimal shelter solution, and it is. But at this moment in the emergency, it’s something that works. Colored tarps keep off the sun and rain and, unlike tents, can be made to fit whatever space and terrain is available – or whatever other purpose they’re needed for on a given day.
 
Over the next two months, Oxfam aims to boost the supply of sturdy plastic sheeting, providing enough for at least 4,000 families (20,000 people) – a project that includes a cash-for-work component: we are employing local people to cut giant rolls of the material down to size. Families will get two pieces, each six meters by four meters, along with two 10-meter lengths of rope.
 
Meanwhile, we’re making plans to assemble and distribute home-repair kits to help those whose houses need patching up, not rebuilding.
 
But when it comes to figuring out if what’s left of your house is a danger to your family, no one should have to rely on guesswork. Oxfam will assemble a team of structural engineers to survey the damage to homes in Haiti and share their knowledge and suggestions with local residents, builders, and officials.
 
How long will it take for survivors of the quake to make their way from camp sites to temporary houses to real, permanent homes? For many, it will be years. But if donors continue to support the aid effort generously, Haitians will get the support they need every step of the way.

“Building back all that was lost in just a few seconds,” says McCabe, “is going to require a sustained commitment from us all.”
 

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