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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.

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For the past 10 months, with funding from the World Bank and USAID and oversight from the Haitian Ministry of Public Works, homes across the capital have been inspected by workers from the United Nations, PADF, and MI. MI has also been training locals in masonry and structural engineering so they can repair the homes or rebuild new quake-proof buildings. So far, says Miyamoto, MI has trained 600 engineers and 300 masons – all Haitians, he says – with plans for training several thousand more masons.

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"It's taken 10 months to basically get ready," he says in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. "It’s not like the Haitian people were ready to fix 100,000 buildings right after the earthquake."

No repairs until next year

A postearthquake structural expert with experience in China and Chile, Miyamoto estimates it will take 12 to 24 months to repair or reconstruct all 200,000 damaged or destroyed homes. That's assuming the money actually comes through from international donors who pledged billions of dollars but seem reluctant to actually open their wallets, he says. “By sometime early next year,” he says, “you will see reconstruction.”

Miyamoto defends the decision to train Haitians to fix the buildings, rather than bring in more international workers to do the job. “Haiti doesn’t want thousands of engineers to show up and do the work for them,” he says. “So we have to train local engineers.”

But at the same time, this decision has slowed relief efforts and left hundreds of thousands of people in the dense, unsanitary, and dangerous tent cities. Rape is widespread. And now, a hurricane is potentially about the bear down on the island.

Tomas picks up speed

Tropical storm Tomas was briefly downgraded Wednesday to a tropical depression, but wind speeds increased by 10 m.p.h. through the day to an average of 45 m.p.h. A tropical storm has wind speeds of 39 to 73 m.p.h., after which it reaches hurricane status. "Tomas is still forecast to slam into earthquake-ravaged Haiti as a hurricane late this week," the Weather Center said in a statement Wednesday.

West of Port-au-Prince in the city of Léogâne, Dr. Montlaux of Doctors Without Borders says that another 150,000 people are estimated to live in tents – nearly three-quarters of the local population. His 120-bed hospital, with about 40 staff, is the only medical center in all of Léogâne.

In addition to latching down the windows, he says hospital workers spent this week stocking up food, water, and medicine. A team of doctors was sent to the western tip of the island to treat potential victims of storm Tomas.

“Part of the preparation is not only to protect our things but to be of assistance right after the weekend,” he says. “We will have a large number of people who are affected. ... I would not be worried if everyone had a strong house where they could stay for the weekend."