PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Helta Exanville spent the night in tears, cradling her infant son as a tropical rain drummed on the tarp-and-tin roof overhead. Water leaked relentlessly through the seams, she said, invading her little shelter, soaking her clothes, turning the earthen floor into mud and, in the darkest hours before dawn, driving her to despair.
Exanville, 36, and tens of thousands of homeless families camping on the capital's central esplanade have become icons for what remains urgently to be done as part of the international relief effort in Haiti. More than five weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake, most of the bodies have been buried and most of the wounded cared for, but more than 1 million people, about 11 percent of the population, lack adequate shelter.
President Rene Preval has put more shelter deliveries at the top of his wish list to the United States. At the same time, the top U.N. relief coordinator, John Holmes, has scolded his Haiti-based lieutenants for what he said was a slow response in getting shelter to those living in the hundreds of camps that have sprung up since the temblor killed an estimated 200,000 people.
The U.S. Agency for International Development provided Haiti with a few large tents to be used as temporary refuges during search-and-rescue operations. The aid agency has sent 7,000 rolls of plastic sheeting. An additional 5,000 rolls are on the way, with delivery scheduled before the end of February.
In a written response to questions, its office in Port-au-Prince listed reasons that plastic sheeting and transitional shelter kits are superior to tents, saying they "provide a larger living space, have more flexible applications to social and site conditions … can be provided at a significantly lower cost and serve as an economic stimulus to local economies, as the material is often purchased locally rather than imported."
The Haitian government, although eclipsed in many ways by foreign and international aid groups, has avoided making the distinction in its relief efforts, seeking shelter of any kind from as many sources as possible. A spokesman for Preval, Assad Volcy, said Haitian officials are trying to get more tents, more tarps and more lumber for semi-permanent shelters as fast as possible, without trying to decide what is best.
Homeless families, however, have not waited on aid agencies. They have used scavenged materials from destroyed buildings to build ramshackle homes in the Champ de Mars and other Port-au-Prince campsites.
As a result, campsites with shelters made out of blankets have increasingly become chaotic shantytowns, with small homes cobbled together from whatever was available.