Haitian President Rene Preval requested 200,000 tents last week to help provide shelter for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and homeless in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. On February 2, the UN issued a statement which said “Beyond food, hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake victims displaced from their homes in Port-au-Prince, Léogâne and Jacmel urgently need shelter, with plastic sheeting taking priority over tents.” The International Office for Migration, which is leading the shelter cluster in Haiti, said that along with 55 other aid agencies working to provide shelter they “will soon have distributed close to 52,000 tarpaulins, more than 9,000 family tents.”
Yesterday however, Reuters reported that USAID is supporting a program referred to as “Thinking outside the tent,” which would “reinforce the existing makeshift shelters with solid building materials and recycled rubble.” Today the New York Times reports that aid organizations are beginning to “de-emphasize tents in favor of do-it-yourself housing with tarpaulins at first, followed by lumber.” The NYT adds that this represents “an emerging consensus.” The plans are based on relief efforts from Sri Lanka, where “residents using building materials and design guidelines from aid groups built 56,000 transitional shelters in seven months, housing 92 percent of the displaced families in about a 550-mile area.” The difference is that in Haiti we are talking about nearly a million people, and the time frame is much shorter. As one Haitian told the NYT “If they come step by step and they really do come, O.K.,” he said. “But I don’t know. If not, I want a tent.”
These apparent contradictions in just a matter of days add to the urgency of providing shelter for the estimated 1 million Haitians displaced or homeless. It is clear that better coordination and prioritization of shelter is needed. Without proper shelter the rainy season is sure to create a new wave of humanitarian emergencies with hundreds of thousands of people living in make-shift camps. The lack of sanitation is another problem that much be addressed along with shelter. As numerous health officials have warned, the chance of disease is extremely high in post-earthquake Haiti. The World Health Organization for instance has warned that “the risk of epidemics breaking out in earthquake-devastated Haiti is increasing as the rainy season approaches.” WHO has already noted an increase in diarrhea, measles and tetanus. Without adequate shelter and sanitation the rainy season is sure to cause even more preventable deaths.