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Haiti's tent cities to bear worst of potential hurricane Tomas

Some 1.3 million Haitians in the capital's tent cities have nowhere to go as potential hurricane Tomas approaches, even as 120,000 homes sit vacant and easily repairable.

By Staff writer / November 4, 2010

A boy leaned over an abandoned aircraft Wednesday in a camp set up for the Jan. 12 earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The site used to be an air strip Authorities are advising all people living in the tent cities to seek better shelter as tropical storm Tomas approaches.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

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As tropical storm Tomas speeds toward Haiti, threatening to turn into a hurricane before it passes just west of the island Friday morning, some 1.3 million people are virtually trapped in Port-au-Prince’s flimsy tent cities.

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In the countryside, hundreds of thousands more Haitians still live in tents following the 7.0 earthquake the leveled the capital and surrounding areas in January.

Authorities have advised anyone living in makeshift camps to seek refuge in sturdier buildings, but many say they don't have that option.

“The majority of people have nowhere to go,” says Stefan Reynier, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Léogâne, 18 miles west of the capital. “Those people will not be protected.”

This is despite the fact that more than 100,000 homes in Port-au-Prince sit vacant and in need of only minimal repairs since an earthquake rocked the country in January, according to aid organizations in the country. Each home could be repaired with only days worth of work and several thousand dollars in supplies, they say.

The slow pace of postearthquake relief and reconstruction efforts has been on display for 10 months. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have seen their situations unchanged since the weeks after the earthquake killed 300,000 people. The situation may now be reaching a head, with tropical storm Tomas approaching, thousands of people homeless, and a cholera outbreak threatening to spread nationwide, all while the country gears up for presidential elections in mere weeks.

Tent cities ordered to clear out

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami on Wednesday night issued a hurricane warning for the coast of Haiti. Tomas is expected to make landfall on Friday and dump 5 to 10 inches of rain across the island, according to the NHC.

Whatever the storm's incarnation, “it will create a bad situation for people living, and good conditions for cholera spreading in the water with the bad sanitation, with the movement of population,” adds Dr. Reynier.

The Haitian government has told citizens to evacuate their tent shelters and find secure housing – a tall order, considering the January earthquake damaged or destroyed some 200,000 homes in Port-au-Prince. Because of the city's poor drainage, streets strewn with rubble, and lack of trees or vegetation, flash floods could hit and rush through the dense tent camps.

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Michael Zamba, spokesman for the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) in Washington, which has operated in Haiti for nearly 30 years.

120,000 homes easily repairable

Yet of those 200,000 damaged or destroyed homes, only 40 percent are irreparable, says Kit Miyamoto, the CEO of Miyamoto International, Structural and Earthquake Engineers (MI), which has been helping assess the city. Dr. Miyamoto notes that about 60 percent of them, or 120,000 homes, could easily be repaired with only days worth of work.

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