Letter From Haiti
Ten months after the earthquake, a nation of tent cities struggles against false hope and to separate reality from rumor.
From the first aerial views of Port-au-Prince and then past the chaotic welcome of Haiti's only international airport, there are the blue-and-gray tent cities. More often, rather than camp tents, the structures are flimsy wood frames standing 6 feet or so, wrapped with vinyl tarps, everywhere you go. These carry the stamps of USAID or the Canadian maple leaf, emblems of UNICEF or other United Nations organizations. Milling about the enclosed spaces of 30 to 50 square feet are children and adults -- washing, playing, transacting and erecting more structures.
The tarps were to have been handed out at no cost. But the fiercely efficient distribution system of the informal economy has priced them. And in stalls along crowded and muddy streets, tarps hang for sale, brand new and neatly folded, right next to shower curtains and vinyl tablecloths. Heading south out of the city, you cannot miss still more tarp-covered shelters clustered in the highway median, the same structures that have so moved Deborah Sontag of The New York Times.
There begins the unavoidable two-mile stretch to exit Port-au-Prince that takes nearly two hours to navigate in each direction. So dense is the traffic of cars, trucks, motorbikes and pedestrians in the narrow two-way lane that vehicles can only inch along. This is also true for the original Carrefour road, dangerously potholed, as are nearly all streets in the capital; in other towns the roads are rarely paved at all. Blue-gray clusters of shelters repeat occasionally along the route, interrupting the eventually soothing green scenery all the way to Miragoane, 50 miles away.
Heading north on the coastal road, Nationale #1, past the city dump, eight miles or so from downtown Port-au-Prince, one encounters planned tent cities in neat rows adorned with fluttering flags of international organizations. And on the surrounding hills opposite Source Puante, the sulfur-emitting marshes that delimit the metropolitan expanse from the beach-house region, more tents have sprouted on ad hoc lots, scattered in no particular pattern, as if breaking free from the tidy organization below.
The environment is dry and barren. There is no water or utilities of any sort. There are no schools or shops for miles around. Yet there exists the widespread belief that the clusters and shanties will soon be replaced by cinderblock buildings, that there will be a permanent improvement to the situation.
Temporary or Permanent?
The notion that international monies will rebuild the country and sustain it in years to come is a widely held opinion in Haiti. A companion dream is that enduring life in a tent city will somehow lead to a spanking new 600- to 900-square-foot home -- bathroom and kitchen included -- in a well-planned community. Dozens of architects from throughout the world have, in fact, visited the city. John McCaslan & Partners, a British architectural firm, has been retained to organize a design competition and housing "expo" slated for later this year. Countless American, Canadian, French, British and Dutch websites display renderings of ideal communities and homes priced at $5,000 to $25,000. The expectation is that the Haitian government will contract out a mammoth housing-development project with money it does not presently have but expects imminently.
An estimate of the number of families to be relocated is in the tens of thousands. Before undertaking any construction -- however it is to be financed -- countless details ignored before the earthquake remain to be attended to. These include titles to land; financing for mortgages; and water, sewer and electricity service -- for starters. Moreover, there is much debate about the demographics of the tarp clusters. Are people there victims made newly indigent by the earthquake? Are they settlers staking out a claim for homes that may rise out of the land grab that followed the earthquake? Are they newcomers from the countryside? Are the young people in the camps orphaned and displaced, or are they unruly adolescents breaking away from parental supervision?