PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Aid officials say they have finally figured out where to put hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their homes in a cataclysmic earthquake: right back where they came from.
Dreams of vast relocation camps have largely evaporated due to a lack of available land. And nobody wants to leave people living in the streets under makeshift tents of plastic and bedsheets with the official May 1 start of the rainy season looming.
So Haitians like Marie Carmel Etienne are moving back home, helped by a team funded by the U.S. Defense Department that has promised to remove the debris of shattered buildings in one Port-au-Prince neighborhood if people will dump it in the street in front of their lots.
Etienne spent better than two decades in Brooklyn and Miami before moving back to Haiti and opening a beauty parlor in her three-story home. It all collapsed in the Jan. 12 quake.
She enlisted neighbors to smash the pink-painted concrete into bits and cart them into the street for the American team to pick up. "My U.S. taxes coming back to me," she said, pointing to U.S. Navy engineer Melvin Acree and his team of bulldozer, Bobcat and dump truck drivers. "My Haitian taxes, they do nothing."
About 1.3 million people lost their homes in the quake, and shelter is likely to be the dominant issue at a critical U.N. conference Tuesday in New York, where international aid donors are considering about $11.5 billion in requests. The new plan — now accepted by major international groups including U.N. agencies and the U.S. Agency for International Development — looks like this: Those who can will be encouraged to return to homes that engineers have deemed safe. Those who can't will be given help removing debris so they can return to their own neighborhoods.
Others will try to find host families for the time being. Aid groups will try to improve existing camps for those with no place else to go. Only a small number, as a last resort, may be moved to relocation camps. The International Organization of Migration estimates 245,000 individuals are at high risk of flooding or mudslides in the makeshift camps where they now live.