Haiti

No Calm Before The Storms

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Four months after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince is a collection of jury-rigged tent cities. Now just add water and watch despair grow.

Have you ever seen a city melt? You will, once the storm season comes to Haiti, sending wind and water through the encampments that appeared after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Made of tree-branch poles and plastic sheeting, discarded canvas and corrugated cardboard, found metal and donated supplies, the tent metropolises are set up on hillsides, in front of the presidential palace, on the ruins of houses, on the remains of previous slums. They shelter hundreds of thousands of people who no longer have a place to call home. Just add water to this misery and Haiti will flood with even more despair.

After the quake, 35,000 people took refuge in the Champ de Mars for what seemed to be a good reason. They thought the park in front of the presidential palace would be closest to aid because of the proximity of ministries and the police. But it is also one of the worst places to be when it rains: residents often spend soggy nights awake and standing because they cannot lie down in the pooling waters. In the capital, any concrete surface is now prime real estate; people who set up their tents there don't have to deal with mud when it rains. Not that concrete is a guarantee of security. When the quake struck, houses in the Gros Morne area slid down the slopes of the valley because they were constructed without regard for building codes. Now 5,000 people live in the constricted district, in a funnel perfect for flash floods.

The rains have already started. The wet season will be gathering even more strength in the next few weeks--and then, quickly, come the hurricanes. Always the bane of Haiti, the winds this time may sweep away more than fragile houses built on desiccated hills. Entire tent cities may dissolve. Just as if an earthquake had happened.