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.”
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.
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
Simon Schorno/ICRC and Alex
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.
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
President, Haitian National
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
“Together we must transform
this tragedy into an opportunity for Haiti to rise again.”
IFRC Secretary General
The Haitian National Red Cross Society and the ICRC set up
a water distribution system in Cité Soleil.
“The makeshift camps have been
set up on free plots. But they’re free for a reason:
French Red Cross
ERU team leader
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
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
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
©REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz, courtesy www.alertnet.org