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Haiti's 'tent cities' brace for Tropical Storm Emily

As Tropical Storm Emily heads for Haiti, aid groups scramble to prepare relief efforts for the more than 600,000 people still in makeshift housing after the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent / August 4, 2011

Men try to tie down their tent, which serves as their home, with scraps of material in the slum area of Cite Soleil on August 4. Tropical Storm Emily idled on Thursday just south of Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by last year's devastating earthquake are vulnerable to high winds, torrential rains and dangerous floods and landslides.

Swoan Parker/Reuters

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Haiti braced for potentially deadly rains and flooding from a tropical storm churning toward the Caribbean country where more than 600,000 earthquake survivors are still living in makeshift camps dubbed "tent cities."

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As Tropical Storm Emily moved toward the island of Hispaniola Thursday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center issued a warning for Haiti, parts of the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and Cuba.

The storm’s center was forecast to pass over Haiti’s southwestern peninsula Thursday afternoon, dropping as much as 20 inches of rain in isolated areas. The rains “could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the center said Thursday morning.

Haiti’s civil protection agency told the Associated Press that rains from the storm already damaged several hundred homes and a cholera treatment center in the Central Plateau region, inland from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Aid groups raced to help camp residents prepare by reinforcing their rickety tents and shacks, filling sandbags, and by digging draining ditches.

Although forecasters said Emily should weaken once in makes landfall, aid groups worried about flooding in the country’s deforested, mountainous terrain.

“Even if the storm is downgraded and the winds are not as strong, there will be tons of rain and that’s really dangerous for the people we work with living in tents and in the camps,” says Elise Young, a senior Haiti policy analyst for ActionAid USA, which runs in seven camps in the country.

A lack of evacuation plans for camp residents compounded worries. Young says that before the hurricane season began, aid groups pushed the Haitian government and US government agencies to establish plans for some of the most vulnerable camps.

“The argument is that it’s impossible for them to pick one camp over another. We felt that was insufficient,” she says.

Instead, most of the estimated 634,000 people – still living in camps more than a year and a half after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit – will attempt to ride out the storm.

Even under a best-case scenario in which the storm passes with little damage, the expected flooding could produce conditions ripe for the spread of cholera, relief workers say. The water-borne disease has already been blamed for the deaths of more than 5,800 people and sickened hundreds of thousands since the outbreak began last October.

Aid groups distributed sanitation and hygiene kits, but they are concerned that the number of cases may rise in coming days. Hospitals and clinics are already straining to treat thousands of new patients each week.

“Unfortunately, any time you have rain and flooding, a spike in cholera is likely,” says Julie Sell, spokeswoman for the US Red Cross, which works on cholera prevention and treatment. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Ms. Sell's name.]

“The challenge with Haiti is that you had the initial disaster, then a second disaster with the cholera outbreak and now a storm. The culmination of those three things is really quite difficult,” she says.

Forecasters predicted Emily would pass through the Bahamas on Friday and move north into the Atlantic. Models showed the hurricane affecting portions of Florida over the weekend.

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