Taking the Long View for Haiti

By Michael Hill

Even as Catholic Relief Services continues to deliver relief supplies to the Haitian people, our staff is working on long-term recovery plans for this country, which was devastated by the January 12 earthquake that killed over 200,000.

“We are working with the Haitian people now and will be for years to come,” says CRS President Ken Hackett. “Our fundraising for Haiti has passed the $90-million mark. We are grateful for such generosity, and our donors should know that we will spend all of this money, and much more, helping the people of this devastated country.”

Emergency Recovery in Three Phases

Annemarie Reilly, CRS’ vice president for overseas operations, explained that planning focuses on three phases—the acute relief effort that is ongoing, an intermediate transitional phase that will last most of 2010, and a longer-term recovery phase that will last several years. In practice, there will be a fair amount of overlap among the phases.

“When an acute disaster like an earthquake strikes, you respond as quickly as you can with immediate lifesaving activities to alleviate suffering and protect human dignity,” Reilly says. “But this is a relatively short phase, and as we move into the recovery phase, we need to make sure we are thinking along with our Haitian partners about how what we are doing lays a foundation for longer-term sustainability and the rebuilding of livelihoods.”

As the rainy season approaches, the focus of CRS’ relief effort is moving from food—CRS has fed some 600,000 people—to transitional shelter. Many Port-au-Prince residents, their homes either destroyed or unstable, are living beneath sheets and curtains that provide no protection against inclement weather.

CRS has distributed emergency shelter kits—two waterproof tarpaulins, 80 nails, 100 feet of rope, and one rubber inner tube—to 12,000 families. The material will be used to construct temporary structures that should give 60,000 people protection from the rain. The inner tube is cut into squares that reinforce tarps at the points where they’re fastened to frames by nails.

Plans call for distributing several thousand more of these kits plus a second wave of emergency shelter materials—woolen blankets, bedsheets and insecticide-treated mosquito nets—in the coming weeks.

Shelter Challenges

CRS personnel recognize that such shelters are really temporary, good only for a month or so at most. So plans are being drawn up for transitional shelters: small, sturdy houses that can be used by families for several months while the capital city is being reconstructed.

The challenges in providing transitional housing are many—from designing a structure that is not too costly but still strong enough to withstand hurricanes, to finding a source for lumber (Haiti is heavily deforested). Building material also has to fit conditions in Haiti. For instance, a roof made from a single piece of metal that would be fine in another locale could turn into a deadly projectile during hurricanes, which are common in Haiti.

But the main challenge is finding a place to build the houses. The Haitian government is working to identify sites both in Port-au-Prince and in the surrounding areas that then must be cleared and prepared with proper drainage and sanitation measures before construction can begin. The desires of Haitians—many of whom want to remain near their current homes and employment—must be a major part of any decision.

Income, Health and Safety

Markets are reappearing throughout Port-au-Prince and other areas affected by the earthquake, often out on the streets in front of destroyed buildings. With food coming into the city—from the countryside, from the Dominican Republic, from other sources—CRS does not want to disrupt markets with too many additional food distributions. The challenge is to see that people have money to shop in the markets, so the focus now is on cash-for-work projects that pay people to clear rubble and help with other activities.

CRS is supporting the employment of scores of Haitians to clean out one of the main canals in Port-au-Prince, which became cluttered with rubble and other trash in the weeks after the quake. The canal needs to be cleared both to help restore sanitation and to avoid flooding when the heavy rains come.

Providing decent health care remains an ongoing challenge. Teams from the University of Maryland continue to rotate in and out of the St. Francois de Sales Hospital. CRS helped to get the hospital up and running in the days after the earthquake though most of its buildings were destroyed. Now operation of St. Francois—taking place mainly under tents—must be moved to another site so the destroyed buildings can be cleared and plans for reconstruction can be drawn up. CRS is looking for a site suitable for patients and hospital equipment so that this crucial health care facility can continue to provide its lifesaving services without interruption.

Life in the impromptu camps that now house tens of thousands of Haitians also comes with health risks. CRS is employing a number of measures to get information about proper hygiene to displaced people, including hiring a famous Haitian street artist who paints health and hygiene messages on public walls around Port-au-Prince.

Another ongoing concern is the safety and security of children. Even as CRS sets up safe spaces for children in the camps, we are working with the many orphanages we supported before the earthquake, assessing their needs as they return to providing care. Plans call for continued work to ensure the safety of children—including reuniting those separated from their families as the transitional housing communities are set up.

Michael Hill is CRS’ communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency’s headquarters in Baltimore.

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