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Keeping Hope Alive in Haiti's Tent Cities

Posted: 05/17/11 03:56 PM ET

On the afternoon of April 28, a black cloud rumbled over Haiti and unleashed violent winds and torrents of rain that tore through an already ravaged landscape, setting off a wave of panic. Debris flew through the air, canals and streams overflowed and for a brief, agonizing moment it appeared that a natural calamity had again struck the beleaguered island nation.

Nowhere were the effects of the raging storm more apparent than in the many camps for Haiti's internally displaced people (IDPs). Throughout the city of Port-au-Prince, tens of thousands of tent homes were torn apart by the wind or swept away by floods. Though the tempest was short-lived, it left fresh tragedy in its wake and provided a bitter reminder of the helpless predicament in which Haiti's displaced continue to live.

Indeed, almost 700,000 Haitians who lost their homes in the quake are still living in appalling conditions. Despite a massive international commitment to assist Haiti, the majority of these people still lack access to basic services like healthcare, clean water, toilets, sanitation and live in tattered shelters. This environment is no match for the tropical storms hitting Haiti now, or the hurricanes that may strike within months.

The increasing gravity of the situation in the camps requires an urgent response. This is why we and 50 other members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the U.S. administration to "take decisive action" and "work with the incoming government of Haiti and the international community to ensure that the rights and vital needs of IDP communities are addressed in a timely and efficient manner."

The letter notes that in many camps the situation is worsening: shelter installations are rapidly deteriorating; rape and other forms of gender-based violence are increasing, and a quarter of camp residents are threatened with forced eviction. Few transitional or permanent homes are available for the displaced, and according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), many families are being forced to move to even more precarious dwellings.

The onset of the rainy season has added another layer of misery to the lives of displaced families. Tropical rains and winds not only threaten the flimsy tents, tarps and bed sheets that serve as shelter; they also cause constant flooding. This greatly increases the likelihood of the spread of cholera and other diseases.

The effects of flooding are compounded by the lack of basic sanitation in many camps. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti has warned that without sanitation services in camps, "latrines are going to overflow [and] it's going to be a source of cholera contamination..." Partners in Health, an aid organization servicing Haiti for over 20 years, has already reported a large spike in cholera cases in recent weeks.

In short, an already intolerable situation is about to get worse. Swift, efficient action is needed if we are to avoid another full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

Providing IDP communities with transitional and permanent housing must be a priority. However, the first priority is ensuring that basic services, security and adequate temporary shelter are provided to tent communities. Such a task is possible if -- with our Haitian and international partners -- we strive to correct the inefficiencies and errors that have plagued past aid efforts.

As our letter to Secretary Clinton states, our government needs to bring "accountability and transparency... to the task of IDP assistance," in particular with regard to the efforts of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and IOM. USAID plays a central role within the international relief mission and should use its leverage to ensure that contracting NGOs provide full coverage of the needs of displaced persons and collaborate more closely with Haitians, particularly the very Haitians living in camps.

While our people and government have responded to Haiti's crisis with great generosity, the alarming conditions in tent camps make it imperative to ramp up and reappraise our efforts. It's time for us to step up to the plate, once again, and make sure that the next violent storms don't succeed in destroying more lives and killing the hope that remains among those who saw their homes crumble on January 12th, 2010.