As Storm Nears, Haitians Scramble to Evacuate

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Tomas may have been downgraded to a tropical storm but it may yet restrengthen to a hurricane by Friday — just in time to strike Haiti. And so the government of the Caribbean nation continues to press an evacuation warning on its citizens living in low-lying areas and the tent cities that emerged after the Jan. 12 earthquake. The storm is also likely to dump 15 inches of rain on the country, which could well exacerbate an outbreak of cholera as tainted water spreads through flooding. The disease, more or less contained to an area north of the capital, has already killed hundreds of people. "The state has not issued a mandatory evacuation," says Nadia Lochard, technical coordinator for the Haitian Civil Protection Department. "But we are telling those who have friends and families with [solidly built houses] to wait out the storm there."

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian organization tasked with camp management, has run a cartoon-strip campaign in camps called "Run to your neighbor." But, realistically speaking, most of the estimated 1.5 million people who are homeless and living in makeshift tents have nowhere to evacuate to. Franklin Mezulus, 53, lives in a camp on a hillside outside of Port-au-Prince with eight children under his care. He says he doesn't have any options once the storm hits. "If I had friends or family with homes, I would have been there on the 13th of January," says Mezulus. "If a storm hits I'll have nowhere to go."

In Corail-Cesselesse, the only "planned" camp, red flags have been set up to warn residents of the coming storm. The banners have also created corners for people to gather to chatter about Tomas and where the Haitian government would evacuate them. In previous years, the authorities identified schools and hospitals as hurricane shelters but, post-earthquake, few large buildings remain standing. "It's a major challenge communicating with a population of 1.5 million people. How do you help them save themselves?" says IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle. His organization plans to move 6,000 of Corail camp residents Thursday to several shelters, including a newly built, unoccupied prison in the metropolitan city of Croix-des-Bouquets. But, says Doyle, "even when you identify a hurricane shelter, it can only house about 500 people."

Corail camp resident Molane Montinor, 59, seems to gather dust as she walks with a blanket and plastic-covered tarp over her head. She says that she's decided to leave the camp and go to her family's house in Delmas, an area of the capital Port-au-Prince. "I've already experienced a bad storm in a tent, and I don't want to go through that again," says Montinor. "The wind and the rain was just too strong." In July, a windstorm collapsed about 350 tents in Corail and sent 1,700 people running for shelter.

News of Tomas, though alarming, was not a surprise. In June, the forecast had been for an active hurricane season in the Caribbean. In August, the Clinton Foundation committed $1 million to construct 14 emergency shelters. So far, six have been completed, each able to house 80 people. As a precaution, the Red Cross pre-positioned emergency supplies like tarps and hygiene kits for 17,000 families in Port-au-Prince, with additional supplies sent to Haiti's southwestern coastal cities like Les Cayes (where Tomas is projected to make land.) The World Food Program pre-positioned food supplies in 32 locations across the country to feed 1.1 million Haitians for six weeks. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Iwo Jima is in transit to assist with transporting supplies and medical relief.

Those precautions, however, must now factor in the cholera outbreak that has killed at least 400 people and infected about 6,700 Haitians, according to the Ministry of Health. Haiti will be hit by the strong side of a storm system that is expected to bring a deluge, even if the winds are weaker. That could mean severe flooding in areas around the country where canals are packed with trash. "We're basically maxed out," says Oxfam spokeswoman Julie Schindall. "We're mounting two emergency responses, and we can't handle a third."

Those who live in coastal slums and tent camps are left the most vulnerable, says nonprofit International Action Ties, a human rights agent Mark Snyder. "20% of the 1,300 officially recognized displacement camps receive aid from humanitarian organization," says Snyder. "That means we're facing a massive exclusion of a vulnerable population."