PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 23, 2010 (IPS) – A cacophony of murmurs and cries echoed through the neighbourhoods of Haiti’s capital city Monday night as a violent aftershock shook people awake. Ten minutes later, another tremor rocked the ground, this time more smoothly back and forth.
The 4.7 magnitude tremors were a momentary distraction from pressing concerns over Haiti’s oncoming season of heavy rains, said to begin in March and last three months.
Shelter is now the top priority for relief groups, ahead of food and water distribution. They are rushing to supply thick plastic tarps, rather than tents, to over 500,000 internally displaced people in Port-Au-Prince – many still living under bedsheets tied over sticks in crowded settlements.
At a shelter distribution by CARE International at a camp in a Petionville public square, the tarps were received with a mixture of confusion and disappointment.
“It’s not clear for us. We can’t set them up because they don’t send anyone to give an explanation,” said Joseph Jean-Ones, whose family lives in the camp, as he tried to fit one metal pole on top of another.
His wife was given a gray tarp, a set of gleaming metal poles, and a single piece of paper with pictoral diagrams showing how to tie the materials together. The tarps do not come with text instructions, in Haitian Creole or any language.
“They should teach people how to set them up before distributing them,” said another man, setting the supplies down on the ground. “Now we don’t know what to do with it. It’s like they’re distributing problems to us.”
An aid worker with CARE International, who asked not to be identified by name, said non-Haitian staff with her organisation are not supposed to walk into any camps alone. Seeing this reporter walk in and out several times, she asked to tag along.
“Maybe we should have tried doing this ourselves first,” she said quietly, while attempting to show a confused family how to construct the tarp shelter.
At least 330,000 people throughout Port-Au-Prince have received tarps so far, according to the U.N.
The dark gray tarps are widely visible in camps throughout the city, tied at varying angles over wood and metal objects that make up the walls of makeshift shelters.
“No one is pretending that this offers anything but very partial protection from the rains,” Alex Wynter, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross, told reporters in a press briefing.
“I would say that the tents and tarpaulins, in addition to giving people a modicum of privacy, give people a tool with which they can stay dry overnight,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that we face a very grave crisis here, when the rains come.”
Wynter said the peculiarities of Haiti’s climate make the rainy season “especially violent, even by tropical standards worldwide.”
There are also concerns over poor sanitation and the possibility of water-borne diseases spreading quickly in the camps. Haitians are being encouraged to dig shallow trenches for drainage.
Plastic tarps are far more prevalent than tents in the city’s camps. Large white domed tents, called Shelterboxes, from the UK-based charity of the same name, are scattered by the dozens in a few camps.
“What we’re about is shelter, warmth and dignity – it’s difficult to get that with tarps,” said John Leach, Shelterbox’s Head of Operations, in an interview. He said the plastic tarps will prove inadequate under heavy rains.
“If tarps are that great, why are all the U.N. people living in tents?” he asked.
NGOs working to provide shelter for the population are coordinating through a “shelter cluster” team based at a U.N. base.
Asked about the balance of tarps versus tents being distributed, Gregg McDonald, a lead member of the shelter cluster staff, said, “There are 142 agencies in the cluster that agree with this strategy [of tarp distribution], a couple of irresponsible agencies still doing tents.”
“Tents are inappropriate now. The extra floor space is not available,” he said. Tarps “can move, have a lot more versatility, strength, and are longer-lasting.”
Luckner Thervius, one of two dozen committee members organising the camp in Petionville, said he understood why tarps were necessary. “It would be better if everyone had a small one,” pointing to a rectangular green tent shared by several families. “That one is too big. There’s not enough space if everyone had one like this.”
CARE International contacted IPS after the tarp distribution to say that their staff would set up a tarp shelter as an example in each camp from now on.