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“We need a new Haiti “

 

As aid agencies race to provide shelter to withstand the hurricane season, the Red Cross Red Crescent sees hope among the ruins.

BEFORE THE 12 JANUARY EARTHQUAKE destroyed her home and her livelihood, Carmel worked as an administrator in a hospital in Delmas, a neighbourhood on the east side of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince. Now homeless and out of a job, she faces an uncertain future with trepidation, determination and hope.

“In a few seconds,” she says, “my world literally collapsed. I lost my job that I loved so much and my home, with everything that was in it. The worst is that I saw my best friends and my colleagues go in front of me.

“The next day, I found the strength to dig holes and hammer nails into improvised coffins to bury my loved ones. Today, I refuse to leave my city and my only hope is to one day see it live again.”

In the port town of Léogâne, 29 kilometres to the west of the capital, a similar story unfolds. The landscape resembles Mogadishu or Beirut at the height of their conflicts. Experts estimate that 80 per cent of Léogâne is damaged, and even the standing structures are cracked beyond repair or are next to buildings that must be demolished.

Those who still have homes will hardly set foot — let alone sleep — inside them. “I just dash indoors, grab clothes and other things, and dash out again,” says Robeny Leandre, a 42-year-old shopkeeper who lost his business and home, but luckily not his family.

His small general store is still standing, but just barely, with gaping fissures running up and down the walls. As for the house, “no one has come to tell us whether it’s safe, but I know what the answer is,” he says.

Meanwhile, throughout the crisis, thousands of messages flew at light speed around the country — and around the world — as people used text messages and cell phones to make emergency cries for help:

“To anyone in the Mont Joli-Turgeau area... Jean- Olivier is caught under rubble of his fallen house... he is alive but in very bad shape. Please, please, please hurry and get there as soon as you can. URGENT.”

These are just some of voices Movement volunteers and workers heard in the days and weeks after the earthquake. They are the words of people living in a world turned upside down, in which nature crushed all that was familiar in the space of a few, terrifying minutes. They are voices of desperation, but also of hope.

Three months later, their words still ring true. Thousands of people are still in pain, without jobs, lacking adequate food, healthcare and safe shelter even as the rainy season adds insult to injury, threatening a second humanitarian disaster.

“We can get as much as 50 millimetres of rain in two hours,” notes Michaèle Gédéon, president of the Haitian National Red Cross Society, “and there are usually extremely strong winds, too.”

Everyone here is painfully aware that the rainy season is followed closely by hurricanes. Two years ago, three hurricanes — Gustav, Hanna and Ike — and Tropical Storm Fay left hundreds of people dead, tens of thousands homeless, and aggravated chronic malnutrition in several parts of the country. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne claimed 1,900 lives, while floods took 2,600.

Well before 12 January, Haitian Red Cross volunteers were well versed in disaster response, from community first aid to food distribution and shelter. They were joined in many of these efforts by permanent delegations from the American, Canadian, French, German and Spanish Red Cross Societies, and the ICRC.

Now they are joined by hundreds of volunteers from around the world who are working flat out to provide emergency first-aid healthcare, create basic sanitation, offer psychological support, reunite separated families and build decent temporary shelter. With 21 Emergency Response Units (ERUs) deployed, 33 National Societies mobilized and 600 volunteers and delegates from around the world, the Haiti earthquake response is the largest singlecountry mobilization in the history of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Even combined with the aid offered by other agencies, it still may not be enough to handle what’s coming next. With somewhere near 1.2 million people now in immediate need of shelter, one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of recent decades could get worse — much worse.

As this magazine goes to press, tens of thousands are still living with little more over their heads than a tarpaulin, supported by a few cords and whatever poles people could find amid the ruins. In Port-au-Prince, there are more than 500 makeshift camps where people huddle together on whatever spare ground they can find in the already-overcrowded capital.

“One of the major problems we face here is that the makeshift camps have been set up on free plots,” says Eric Rossi, an ERU team leader for the French Red Cross. “But they’re free for a reason: they flood.”

In the sprawling Bel Air camp, where some 20,000 people live, young men are busy clearing space for the families that keep arriving in what is rapidly becoming a huge shanty town, with its own markets, vendors, preachers, water distribution points and first-aid posts.

Around the city, many are camping just outside their homes, too frightened to move indoors, but reluctant to leave their neighbourhoods. Others are leaving the cities entirely. According to the Haitian government, more than 235,000 people have moved to rural areas, many of them staying with relatives and friends.

A question of space

Within a month of the disaster, the Movement had already provided emergency shelter materials — including tarpaulins, tools and tents — to roughly 20,000 families (95,000 people). Since then, the IFRC has provided emergency shelters to cover approximately 400,000 people over four months.

Most of this has been ‘emergency’ shelter for immediate privacy and protection from sun and rain. But the threat of hurricanes means that aid agencies must simultaneously provide more robust stormproof transitional shelter.

Led by the Haitian Red Cross, volunteers are building two types of Red Cross-designed transitional housing: a one-storey, 12-square-metre, wood-framed hut that can withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, and a steel-framed, two-storey version with the same footprint.

Teams are now working around the clock to meet an ambitious goal: to construct 20,000 of the onestorey shelters for rural and urban areas and 15,000 two-storey units for families in urban areas where space is at a premium.

But building the shelters is not the hardest part. “The overriding problem is space,” says Nelson Castaño, head of the IFRC’s relief operation in Port-au-Prince. “The city was already seriously over crowded. Now huge areas of Port-au-Prince are uninhabitable.”

As new building sites are considered, there are often diffiicult questions of land ownership to resolve. “Getting land is crucial,” says Michaèle Gédéon. “If more land becomes available, there are at least 5,000 Red Cross volunteers — half of our national strength — who are ready to try to make it safe by digging drainage channels and clearing sewers.”

The problem is not limited to Port-au-Prince. West of the capital, Léogâne was the urban area closest to the epicentre of the quake. Downtown, in the Gustave Christophe football stadium, up to 10,000 people are sleeping in flimsy shelters, packed together like sardines.

This city of 180,000 people — minus the 10,000 or more who perished in the disaster — has been levelled. The Creole graffito scrawled on the side of a badly damaged church sums it up: “Pou yon Ayiti nouvo, yon Leyogàn tou nef.” In essence: we need a new Haiti, but we need a brand-new Léogâne.

A sprint and then a marathon

Gathering in Montreal almost a month after the quake, the Movement — represented by 23 National Societies, the IFRC and the ICRC — pledged to continue its integrated emergency relief for the next 12 months and support the needs of 80,000 families (roughly 400,000 people).

The Movement also pledged to provide healthcare for a zone that includes 500,000 people in and around Port-au-Prince, as well as water and sanitation for 30,000 families. It also promised to help rebuild the capacity of the Haitian National Red Cross Society, which lost many volunteers and staff as well as several key buildings.

The IFRC took on the role of coordinating the ‘shelter cluster’, a consortium of roughly three dozen international agencies and relief organizations that are each taking on different aspects of short- to longterm shelter relief.

It’s a massive and complex effort that involves finding land, sorting out issues of ownership, removing debris, relocating camps, building communal hurricane shelters, providing sanitation, assessing damaged buildings, delivering building materials and finding skilled labour — to name just a few of the challenges.

Meanwhile, the Movement is also keeping an eye on the end goal: to help Haiti rebuild itself with housing and commercial construction that could prevent a repeat of 12 January 2010.

“Disaster response is a sprint but disaster recovery is a marathon,” said IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta, who visited Haiti with IFRC President Tadateru Konoé eight days after the quake. “Together we must transform this tragedy into an opportunity for Haiti to rise again.”

A generation of recovery

The recovery process will take years — perhaps even a generation. But there are some encouraging signs. Despite the destruction, the chaos and the pain, life is returning to the streets and camps of Port-au-Prince.

One month after the quake, there is traffic everywhere. Buses and pick-up trucks are packed. United Nations troops and, in the downtown area, US soldiers, can be seen patrolling. Many roads are blocked because bulldozers are removing debris and tearing down dangerous buildings.

Thousands have started lining up in front of money transfer offices throughout the city. Banks have opened and the price of petrol has started going down. More food is available in street markets, even if prices have doubled and many families must still pool their resources to afford the most basic commodities.

Everyone here is uncertain about the future but early on a recent Sunday morning, entire families could be seen dressed in their Sunday best — little girls in white dresses and shiny black shoes and fathers, wearing jackets and ties, holding their hands — walking towards what is left of a church.

A few moments later, they stood together proudly on top of the ruins, listening to their preacher and singing solemn hymns.

In another part of the capital, 29-year-old carpenter Pierre Marie Gerard also feels hope, pride and possibility as he works with other Red Cross volunteers assembling hurricane-resistant housing. “First and foremost I’m a Haitian,” he says, “and despite the awfulness of the quake I feel excited about the possibility of building a new Haiti. I want the world to view us in a different light. My dream is a new Haiti.”

By Paul Conneally/IFRC, Malcolm Lucard/RCRC magazine, Simon Schorno/ICRC and Alex Wynter/IFRC contributed to this report.


The degree of devastation (as shown in this photo of the Port-au-Prince neighhourhood of Canapé Vert) is one reason tens of thousands are choosing to live outdoors, in makeshift camps that have now become shanty towns, extremely vulnerable to the coming hurricane season.
©Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

“Getting land is crucial. If more land becomes available, there are at least 5,000 Red Cross volunteers who are ready to try to make it safe.” Michaèle Gédéon
President, Haitian National
Red Cross Society

 

 

 

 

 


The quake left roughly 1.2 million people homeless. In Port-au-Prince, more than 500 makeshift camps, such as this one at a sports centre in Carrefour, sprang up on whatever spare ground survivors could find.
©Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

“Together we must transform this tragedy into an opportunity for Haiti to rise again.”
Bekele Geleta
IFRC Secretary General


 

 

 


The Haitian National Red Cross Society and the ICRC set up a water distribution system in Cité Soleil.
©Marko Kokic/ICRC

 

 

 

 

 

“The makeshift camps have been set up on free plots. But they’re free for a reason: they flood.”
Eric Rossi
French Red Cross
ERU team leader

 

 

 

 

 

Rapid response
in the sms age

“Hotel Montana at Rue Franck Cardozo in Pétionville collapsed. 200 feared trapped.” “We are in the street Saint Martin below Bel Air near the hotel. We are dying of hunger. Please bring us aid.”

These desperate pleas were sent by text message in the first few days after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. They were sent through the Emergency Information Service (EIS), a disaster communications project established by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in partnership with the IFRC, as a way to get information quickly to and from survivors of natural disasters.

It’s not your traditional cry for help. But in Haiti, with traditional media and phone systems destroyed, text messages were often the only way desperate, hungry or hurt people could signal their distress.

The EIS was then able to locate the callers by GPS, plot their location on maps and refer the call to volunteers on the ground. One month after the earthquake, more than 16,000 disasterrelated messages were sent through EIS. In one case, it directed injured Haitians via text message to one of the few city hospitals with room to treat more patients.

The system also helped search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in the rubble. In one case, a man trapped for five days in a collapsed building in downtown Port-au-Prince was rescued after sending a desperate text message.

In addition, the Haitian National Red Cross Society and the IFRC teamed up with a mobile phone company to text more than 1.2 million subscribers a day with messages about vaccinations, shelter and sanitation, among other things. The push of a button achieved what would normally take days even for an army of volunteers.

From ‘victims’ to first responders

The idea of using cell phone technology in disaster management is not new. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, it became clear that modern wireless communication could play a critical role in systems for both early warning and crisis management.

Digital communications are only a small part of a long-term, concerted effort within the Movement to give greater voice to those most affected by natural disasters. The approach recognizes that people affected by disasters are not ‘victims’ but a significant force of first responders who need to be empowered and engaged as part of the overall aid effort. After all, it is their recovery, their future, their lives and livelihoods that are at stake.



After the quake, cell phones were a critical relief tool. Impromptu for-hire charging stations like this one allowed cell phone users to keep up with the news.
©REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz, courtesy www.alertnet.org

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