Haiti Camps Prepare for Rains

06/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Tom Price

April sees the onset of the rainy season in Haiti, and in a land prone to flooding, this can be a time of danger. Rainwater can rush down hillsides bare of greenery, washing away structures in its path and leaving behind mud and standing water. In 2008, rains from four storms flooded the city of Gonaives with mud.

At the Petionville Club in Port-au-Prince, home to some 50,000 people made homeless by the January 12 quake, tents and temporary shelters sit on and below bare, sloping land where flooding is a real risk.

Catholic Relief Services and our local Church partner Caritas Haiti are working with the community at Petionville to make sure that the camp is prepared for the rains. Petionville is a hive of activity as drainage channels are dug and lined with sandbags and gravel. Work teams of camp residents break up the soil with picks, shovel it into wheelbarrows and take the dirt away from the freshly dug channels. The channels flow downhill through the camp, meeting at the municipal drain where the water can flow safely away.

"We are employing people within the camp to provide security against the threat of flood," explains Kevin Osbourne, who is coordinating cash-for-work activities for CRS in Haiti. Cash-for-work programs are putting money into the camp community while paying residents to carry out vital tasks. The programs are supported by private donations to CRS and funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"We want to empower people within the community with knowledge of why we conduct these construction projects," says Osbourne. "It is to move towards their long-term security, whether in Petionville, in a camp elsewhere, or back into their homes."

Families who are living in areas of the camp most vulnerable to flooding are being located to safer, less crowded areas of Petionville. Others are also given the option of moving to another camp at Corail Cesselesse, which is being prepared for the arrival of up to 6,780 people. All of this is taking place as teams of engineers survey the area that was home to many of the families who are now living at Petionville to see if at least some can return to structurally sound homes. Structures are labeled green for safe, yellow for needing some repair or red for unsafe.

The camp drainage project is Haitian-led. Wilson lives in the camp with his cousin, who runs a beauty shop at their tent to try to make ends meet. He is one of nine team leaders who oversee 130 laborers, men and women, all camp residents. He works closely with Mackenzie Andre, who is the cash-for-work on-site supervisor for CRS at Petionville camp.

"Our job is to drain the water from the top to here," says Wilson, gesturing to the municipal drains. "Everybody is going to be safe. We don't want another January 12 right here."
CRS has also been preparing for the rains elsewhere in Port-au-Prince. In the Solino area of the city, canals were filled with garbage, sewage and rubble from the quake. It was crucial to clear the canals so they wouldn't flood the area and increase the risk of waterborne diseases. CRS cash-for-work crews helped USAID and other organizations clear the canals in what was deemed by the United Nations as one of the five most vulnerable sites in Haiti.

Some might expect Haitians to lose hope and determination with all that they have suffered since the January 12 quake. Far from it, they are working to secure a better future and making sure the rainy season passes safely.

Tom Price works as senior communications manager based at CRS headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. He is visiting Haiti to report on the agency's earthquake recovery work.