SYDNEY – SYDNEY (AP) — The U.N.'s humanitarian chief acknowledged frustration Sunday with the slow progress in providing shelter to the 1.5 million Haitians still homeless because of the Jan. 12 earthquake, and said a large amount of work needs to be done as the hurricane season bears down on the struggling nation.
John Holmes told The Associated Press that the complex process of finding available land for transitional shelters, slow decision-making by the government and new waves of Haitians moving into homeless camps have made responding to the crisis particularly hard.
"We are a bit frustrated that it's taken so long," said Holmes, who is in Australia for a meeting of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' donor support group. "We've not been able to build many of these transitional shelters so far."
The hurricane season began last week and forecasters are predicting it will be an active one, with as many as 23 named tropical storms. Deforestation and erosion has left Haiti particularly vulnerable to flooding and mudslides, and a big storm will create misery for those still living under tarps in flood zones five months after the quake.
"We have a lot of things to do and a lot of concerns and a lot of risks before we feel we're in a more comfortable situation," Holmes said.
Complicating matters further is the influx of Haitians moving into homeless camps, which have swelled in size to 1.5 million — almost twice as many as the number estimated soon after the quake.
Following the disaster, hundreds of thousands fled the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince, to outlying cities to stay with relatives. But conditions in those areas are not much better, and with nothing to do and no income, they've begun to head back to the capital and settle in the camps, Holmes said.
Others can no longer afford to pay their rent and feel they have no other alternative but to move to the camps, he said. And although some houses have been deemed safe for people to move back into, many residents are too scared to return, fearing another tremor.
Many Haitians also believe they will get more food and medical aid if they're in the camps than if they're not, Holmes said.
"People feel that somehow that if they're in the camps, then something will be provided in the end — and of course to some extent, it's true," Holmes said. "But I think they may have exaggerated expectations ... which we need to manage. But that's also the responsibility of the government."
Haiti's government has provided another challenge to the process of sheltering the homeless, Holmes said. Its infrastructure was shattered by the quake, and it is still not fully functioning, which means tough decisions take a long time to make, he said.
One major hurdle: getting government approval to build semi-permanent shelters made of wood with galvanized iron roofs. There is no land to build such housing in Port-au-Prince, and though areas have been identified outside the city, it has been hard to reach consensus between land owners, local authorities and the central government, Holmes said.
That's because officials know that transitional settlements are likely to end up becoming permanent settlements for some, which calls into question issues of what will happen to the houses and the people in the long term.
Holmes said he predicts it will be many more months before proper reconstruction can begin.
"It has been an uphill struggle the whole way to make progress," he said.