Tents Not Holding Up in Heavy Haitian Rains

Posted on June 27, 2010

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emily troutmantent

Tents Aren’t Holding Up in Heavy Haitian Rains
Updated: 1 day 19 hours ago

Emily TroutmanEmily Troutman Contributor

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (June 25) — Hurricane season in Haiti officially began three weeks ago, bringing rain to the region nearly every day. More than 1.5 million Haitians remain in the streets. Yet this week, the United Nations completed a study, revealing that 40 percent of all emergency shelters, including tents and tarps, already need to be replaced or “improved.”

It took the international community five months to distribute almost 700,000 tarps and 70,000 tents and remains one of the most complex and difficult accomplishments of the disaster response. The new study, however, shows that emergency shelter materials cannot withstand the extreme weather in Haiti. In particular, small camping-style tents have fallen apart.

A tent in Haiti
Emily Troutman
The international community distributed 70,000 tents to earthquake survivors, but these makeshift shelters cannot withstand Haiti’s heavy rains.

Monese Derosier, mother of a 4-month-old, was grateful to receive one of the few tents in Place St. Pierre, a town square in Petionville, home of 6,000 displaced people. The bright tent is blue and orange, but like many other temporary shelters, it needs repair, at least a supporting tarp. It leaks. Its zip-up door has long since stopped zipping. To protect the floor from the rain, she has made a small foundation of rubble.

But she’s not likely to get help soon. With the “emergency phase” now over, most organizations have moved on to other projects in Haiti and elsewhere. It is unclear who will fill this gap, particularly when it comes to small tents. Many of the charities involved in the distribution either do not consider themselves responsible for monitoring and evaluation, or do not have the capacity to improve the tents.

Since the earthquake on Jan. 12, humanitarian experts have discouraged the distribution and donation of tents. They are expensive to buy and to transport. They take up more space than a tarp, and ultimately, they can’t withstand the weather. Despite this prediction, many charities, particularly those in the United States, persisted in their appeals for tents.

A camping tent in Petionville, Haiti
Emily Troutman
Tents like this one, in a camp in Petionville, are unable to withstand the continuous use.

ShelterBox, a charitable organization based in the U.K., specializes in tents for extreme conditions. It was the largest supplier of tents in Haiti, distributing approximately 20,000. ShelterBox has a positive reputation in the aid community because its tents meet a number of specialized technical standards — they are made of a reflective white material to bounce the sun’s rays and can withstand 75 mph winds.

Nicola Jones, logistics coordinator for the organization, says ShelterBox’s tents are continuously monitored and seem to be faring well. She acknowledges that adding a tarp to every tent, as shelter officials would like to do, will certainly extend the tents’ lives. But ShelterBox will not be doing so.

In the event that the tents need to be replaced, Jones says, “We’re not in a position to replace stock that’s already been distributed. We are still trying to meet the needs of people who don’t have shelter and come up with contingency stock in the event of hurricanes.”

Yele Haiti, the American organization founded by musician Wyclef Jean, distributed 3,000 camping-style tents in Haiti. In March, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that the organization had received $9.1 million to aid in the recovery effort.

A camping tent in Petionville, Haiti
Emily Troutman
Ordinary tents are not designed to withstand both the weather and the wear-and-tear of permanent residence.

Claudinette Jean, the wife of Wyclef Jean, speaking on behalf of Yele Haiti, says, “I don’t even want to look back at the tents.” The organization has not closely monitored them and has chosen instead to focus on building permanent shelters.

“Of course [the tents] are going to fall apart,” Jean says. “I know you want me to go there and take these tents and tape them back together, but that’s not what we want to do.” She insists they would prefer to “move forward.”

Of the tents given by Yele Haiti, 2,500 were donated by a partner charity, A Home in Haiti, which is based in Atlanta and run by the young pastor, Shaun King. Since February, King has led an energetic campaign for tents, mostly via Twitter and through the celebrity endorsement of actress Eva Longoria.

His organization brought 8,000 tents to Haiti, sending their final shipment this week. Though the charity encourages Haitian recipients to add tarps to their tents, it also has done “very little” monitoring and has no staff in the country.

In March, King responded, via e-mail, to the notion that international experts opposed tents, “I am 100 percent sure the same organizations saying ‘Don’t send tents’ are buying tents themselves for their staff and workers.”

“While I understand,” he said, “that some aid groups need to focus on life in Haiti beyond tents, to say they aren’t needed or helpful is immoral/unethical to me. … Tents go very far to solve [the problem of rain] until better shelter is provided.”

Unfortunately, better shelter has not appeared in Haiti. Reports from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs state that a number of international organizations have both the funding and the material to immediately start building more than 120,000 transitional shelters. Such shelters are considered another stopgap measure on the way to permanent rebuilding.

What these organizations don’t have is the land. Efforts to build on empty lots have been plagued by complex land ownership issues, with most organizations opting for a cautious approach. To date, only 2,440 transitional shelters have been built.

This week, a report released by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations confirmed what 1.5 million homeless Haitians already knew: The process is suffering from “paralysis.”

Yele Haiti is just one organization facing unexpected delays.

“You can’t just go and build over people’s land,” Claudinette Jean says. “Then you’re just wasting money. [Owners] could go and move people from those shelters.”

In March, the government of Haiti made an initial identification of sites for transitional shelters. But when it became apparent that the owners wanted $150 million for the properties, the international community backed off. In total, the properties were only big enough to support 6,000 to 8,000 structures. The government has yet to provide alternatives

In the meantime, tent owners like Monese Derosier are left in limbo. What she’d like is a house. What she needs is a tarp. What she’ll actually get is anyone’s guess.