A boy does his homework in a camp for displaced people in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Ami Vitale/Oxfam America
Hurricane season started on Tuesday -- another mark in the grind of time for the people of Port-au-Prince. An estimated one and a half million of them in Haiti's capital and its surroundings remain homeless since a January earthquake destroyed great swaths of their city. Sheets of plastic -- seas of it stretched across rubble-strewn neighborhoods -- are all that many families have for shelter as they face another cycle of uncertainty.
What new misery might Mother Nature have in store now?
It's bad enough that each morning for nearly five months residents of Port-au-Prince have woken from sleep only to stumble back into the same nightmare: the camps -- estimated to number more than 1,000 now -- teeming with people, their din, their detritus. Twisted with muddy paths and smelling of latrines, these spontaneous camps are no substitute for home. But home they have become and, many fear, home they will continue to be for years ahead.
I was in Port-au-Prince about two weeks ago. It was my second visit there since the quake. And I marveled at the stamina of its residents, trapped by disaster day after day with little hope for escape -- either physical or psychological.
Miraculously, girls would emerge from the warren of tarps dressed in crisp plaid skirts with matching bows in their hair and lace-topped bobby socks ready for school. How could they be so put together?
Beneath the plastic sheets, dark and sweltering in the afternoons, I heard children repeating their lessons and adults, nearby, murmuring encouragement. How could anyone concentrate in this heat, this confusion?
Lines of laundry -- t-shirts and underpants, skirts and towels -- danced through the camps, scrubbed clean in tubs of water someone hauled back from a distant tap. How do you muster the muscle for that chore when the uncertainty of your family's future presses down so hard?
How deep is this well of Haitian endurance?
I wince as I ask that question, as though acknowledging all that people have suffered through -- and survived -- allows us to imagine that our neighbors in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere somehow have a tolerance for hardship.
And now, here comes the hurricane season, with its possibility of torrential rains and wild wind and its threat of epidemics and landslides. Oxfam is worried -- especially about 28 sites where a recent survey showed the arrival of a violent storm could unleash a new wave of disaster. These sites are extremely overcrowded and have little natural drainage.
There's cause to worry: Two years ago a string of severe storms -- four, one after the other -- left about $1 billion worth of damage to the Caribbean nation and affected the lives of 800,000 people. The memory of that calamity was still sharp when the quake hit.
Oxfam is scrambling to get ready. We're working with local committees and the government's Department of Civil Protection to coordinate disaster response and preparedness. We're stocking more emergency supplies. And we're helping people in the camps improve the drainage and stack sandbags around shelters to prevent flooding.
But the key to staying safe is staying warned, and we're urging the government to launch a campaign to alert people to the risks ahead and give them advice on what to do if a hurricane hits.
It's been five months since the last disaster: Hurricane season makes us realize how far we still have to go and that endurance is not a long-term solution.