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Lots of Priorities, Little Time

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Samuel, 12, digs a trench to help drain water from his family's shelter. Photo by Kenny Rae/Oxfam America

My Oxfam colleague, Kenny Rae, is in Port-au-Prince right now. He's working to provide shelter, sanitation services, and clean water to some of the hundreds of thousands of people in the Haitian capital who were left homeless after the devastating earthquake in January. He just sent this account of the challenges the rain is now presenting.

It's my first week back in Port-au-Prince after a respite in Boston. Last night was uncomfortable; not physically, as the tent is now packed away and I'm sharing a room in a down-at-heel hotel on a hill distantly overlooking the harbor. But listening to the rain, I knew that my conditions were luxurious compared to tens of thousands of families below in the city.

My concerns were confirmed first thing in the morning: in a small spontaneous camp in Delmas, 300 or so people had been through a miserable night. The rain had turned the dirt covering the small field into a thick layer of mud, and grassy strips at the side of the field were laid out with clothes, mattresses, even sodden cardboard boxes that had previously made up shelters.

Our intention in coming here was to set up latrines, but now other priorities seemed more pressing. Will the 400,000 square feet of plastic sheeting ordered arrive as promised next week? Distribution of this is critical to meet the shelter needs of more than a thousand families we've identified. Should I deploy two of the four Haitian engineers working with me to focus exclusively on drainage in camps? How would this affect the plan to set up water tanks next week, and the endless demand for toilets from neighborhoods throughout our working area?

While dwelling on this, I find that people in the camps realize the need for drainage, and many of them are digging small trenches around their dwellings. Samuel, a 12-year-old-boy, is swinging a pick almost as big as himself, cutting a channel around the tiny tent that he shares with his mother and sister.

Other immediate issues emerge. I am told that the owner of a piece of land now the site of a small camp at Delmas 83, has changed his mind. He wants latrines build on his property removed--even though hundreds are already using them.

I ask "Does he realize that this is a much more hygienic solution than having people pooping in the open? And that it's temporary, and Oxfam will fill and cover the pits?"

"Yes, but he wants to talk with you," comes the reply--so I know that a good part of tomorrow morning will involve resolving this, stretching my two years of high school French.

The problem at Delmas 77 was a bit more basic: the engineer had explained to the work crew that the latrine pit had to be dug 90 centimeters wide (about 3 feet); the next day he was running around gathering materials, and when he revisited today found a hardworking crew digging a pit 1.5 meters wide (fully 1 foot wider than the length of our latrine slabs). We had a talk about communication and the need for supervision, and came up with a solution.

I have a tentative plan for the next two weeks: to identify priority sites for additional water tanks, and start to set these up, to have one of the engineers trained in how to properly chlorinate and test water, to continue assessments to identify priority sites for more toilets and have these built.

But after seeing the impact of this week's rain, and reviewing the increasing populations of the camps, and knowing that within a very short time the heavy rains will be here, I realize that we need much more plastic sheeting. After conferring with colleagues I call the manufacturer in Ohio and ask how soon we can have an additional 500,000 square feet. He's sympathetic about our need, explains about his obligation to existing customers, but promises delivery here in two weeks. Hopefully this should give us enough time to distribute before the downpours arrive.