PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Relief officials have changed tack and are urging Haiti's earthquake homeless to return to their destroyed neighborhoods as the rainy season fast approaches.
Officials had initially planned to build big camps outside Port-au-Prince. They still anticipate creating some settlements, but they decided this week to instead emphasize getting people to pack up their tents and tarps and go home.
For that to be possible, authorities will need to demolish hundreds if not thousands of buildings and remove mountains of rubble.
A 20-minute downpour Thursday evening gave a taste of the approaching rainy season and the problems it will bring. People dashed for shelter down streets streaming with runoff while trash clogged gutters and turned depressions into ponds.
Haiti's government weather service lifted its warning of heavy rains Friday morning, but advised people to remain vigilant as chilly winds and dark clouds moved through Port-au-Prince.
Floods and mudslides threaten hundreds of thousands living in camps, and many dwellings are severely damaged or clinging to the sides of hillsides.
At a camp housing 40,000 people in the hills overlooking the capital, Matin Bussreth ran for cover from his bedsheet-tent to a neighbor's plastic tarpaulin during the drenching Thursday night.
"It's a deplorable moment," Bussreth said. "I heard they might be giving out tents. I hope someone will be giving me one."
Some of the hundreds of Haitians who lined up at a downtown site Thursday to register for the new campaign to resettle many of the 1.2 million homeless back in their old neighborhoods expressed skepticism about the plan. Relief officials also acknowledged the immense challenges.
"There will be flooding. There will be discomfort, misery. And that's not avoidable," a top U.N. official for Haiti, Anthony Banbury, told a New York news conference this week.
Gerald-Emile Brun, an architect with the government's reconstruction committee, agreed. "Everything has to be done before the start of the rainy season, and we will not be able to do it," he said Thursday.
Brun suggested that Haitians, who expect little of their corrupt and inefficient government, may largely be left to sort it out themselves.
Camp dwellers — the capital alone has some 770,000 — welcomed the idea of swapping flimsy makeshift tents in the city's fetid center for something more stable. But that didn't mean they wanted to return to their quake-ravaged neighborhoods.
Jean Petion Simplice, a 44-year-old father living with his two boys, wife and mother-in-law under a scrap of sheet in the capital, said he feared returning to his district, which is a shambles.
"They're going to remove us from here, but they won't tell us where we're going," he complained as he joined a line of hundreds to get registered at the Champ de Mars, in the shadow of the collapsed National Palace.
The International Organization for Migration began registration at the plaza Wednesday, collecting people's old addresses in hopes that most can be resettled relatively quickly in their old neighborhoods.
The camp is home to some 60,000 people and was chosen to begin registration because about 45 percent of its residents come from a single Port-au-Prince neighborhood, Turgeau, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Blackwell, who is involved in coordinating the plan.
Not everyone will be able to return to their neighborhood, but relief officials expect to know within two weeks who can after determining which structures are viable and which must be demolished, Blackwell said.
Mark Turner, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that "this is the big new strategy, our big push right now" — to decongest overcrowded and unsanitary camps. "Most people have some kind of tent or structure. We want to be able to tell people, 'Just pack it up and take it home."'
Haitian President Rene Preval described the new plan Thursday to visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, saying the idea is to create small camps of 50-100 tents.
Brun described a lengthy process to get the new strategy moving. Blackwell said engineers have only assessed about 25 percent of the Turgeau neighborhood — so it will take at least until late March to sufficiently clear enough rubble to enable resettlement of the throngs jamming the Champ de Mars.
Officials say the government would compensate owners for land taken, but land tenure is a politically volatile issue in Haiti, where the courts are clogged with tens of thousands of land disputes.
"The lack of identified land is the dominating issue for shelter," said a report released Thursday by a "shelter cluster" of U.N., U.S. and independent groups working with the government on the issue. So for now, priority is going to the plan to resettle people on the ruins of their old homes or close by.