Haiti wants refugees back in ravaged areas

Sherider Anilus, 28, and her daughter, 9-month-old Monica, traveled yesterday to the spot in Port-au-Prince where her home collapsed in the earthquake. Sherider Anilus, 28, and her daughter, 9-month-old Monica, traveled yesterday to the spot in Port-au-Prince where her home collapsed in the earthquake. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Michelle Faul
Associated Press / February 27, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE - Relief officials have changed tactics and are urging Haiti’s earthquake homeless to return to their destroyed neighborhoods as the rainy season fast approaches.

Officials had initially planned to build big camps outside Port-au-Prince. They still anticipate creating some settlements, but decided this week to instead get people to pack up their tents and tarps and go home.

For that to be possible, authorities will need to demolish hundreds if not thousands of buildings and remove mountains of rubble.

A 20-minute downpour Thursday evening gave a taste of the approaching rainy season and the problems it will bring. People dashed for shelter down streets streaming with runoff while trash clogged gutters and turned depressions into ponds.

Haiti’s government weather service lifted its warning of heavy rains yesterday morning, but advised people to remain vigilant as chilly winds and dark clouds moved through Port-au-Prince.

Floods and mudslides threaten hundreds of thousands living in camps, and many dwellings are severely damaged or clinging to the sides of hillsides.

At a camp housing 40,000 people overlooking the capital, Matin Bussreth ran for cover from his bed-sheet tent to a neighbor’s plastic tarpaulin during the drenching Thursday.

“It’s a deplorable moment,’’ Bussreth said. “I heard they might be giving out tents. I hope someone will be giving me one.’’

Some of the hundreds who lined up at a downtown site Thursday to register for the new campaign to resettle many of the 1.2 million homeless in their old neighborhoods expressed skepticism about the plan. Relief officials also acknowledged the immense challenges.

“There will be flooding. There will be discomfort, misery. And that’s not avoidable,’’ a top UN official for Haiti, Anthony Banbury, said this week.

Gerald-Emile Brun, an architect with the government’s reconstruction committee, agreed. “Everything has to be done before the start of the rainy season, and we will not be able to do it.’’

Brun suggested that Haitians, who expect little of their corrupt and inefficient government, might largely be left to sort it out themselves.

Camp dwellers - the capital has some 770,000 - welcomed the idea of swapping flimsy makeshift tents in the city’s fetid center for something more stable. But that did not mean they wanted to return to their quake-ravaged neighborhoods.

Jean Petion Simplice, a father living with his two boys, wife, and mother-in-law under a scrap of sheet in the capital, said he feared returning to his district, which is a shambles.

“They’re going to remove us from here, but they won’t tell us where we’re going,’’ he complained as he joined a line of hundreds to get registered at the Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the collapsed National Palace.