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HAITI: Watching the Sky with Dread

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - With the spring rains and hurricane season just around the corner in Haiti, some 600,000 people are still living in camps, many in areas prone to flooding. And plans to provide solutions for the survivors of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake are moving forward slowly.

Experts from Central America and the Caribbean met Monday through Thursday in the Costa Rican capital at the multi-hazard early warning system workshop, to discuss how to reduce impacts of extreme weather and water events in the region. A special session was held on implementing early warning systems in Haiti.

The head of Haiti’s meteorological service, Ronald Semelfort, said he could only hope that this year’s hurricane season is mild.

An estimated one million people were left homeless by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which had a death toll of at least 230,000.

The 218,000 people living in makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince, which was hit hardest by the quake, are the most vulnerable, according to the United Nations.

Many of the camps in the capital are in areas at risk of flooding. The central and municipal governments are working together in search of places to relocate the survivors, but finding large suitable spaces at short notice is no easy task.

Canada, France and Britain, along with Haiti’s civil protection agency, are working to rebuild the national meteorological network, which collapsed in the quake, in order to provide early warning capability in case of storms and hurricanes.

“The most important thing is making the systems operational, to warn the local population,” Jean-Noel Degrace, regional director of France’s meteorological service, Météo-France, told IPS.

“Preparedness must be achieved, no matter what the cost,” said Degrace, who is based in Martinique. The problem is that the first stage, the ability to predict storms and issue watches and warnings, might not be completed until May, while the rains are set to begin in late April.

The United States, meanwhile, is setting up an Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN), a “simple, autonomous, reliable and rapid system that can supply information to the civil defence authorities,” Abdoulaye Harou, acting director of Canada’s meteorological service, remarked to IPS.

EMWIN and the meteorological system will act independently in Haiti, although they will be coordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which organised this week’s four-day meeting, that was co-hosted by Costa Rica’s national meteorological institute and national commission for risk prevention and emergency response.

Money is not a problem, thanks to the outpouring of international aid. But time is running out fast.

“The earthquake hit just when we were getting ready for hurricane season,” Abel Nazaire, deputy coordinator of the Haiti civil protection bureau, told IPS.

At that time, one of the tasks was to identify public buildings that could serve as shelters during a hurricane. But today, many of those buildings are no longer standing.

Authorities have continued identifying the few buildings still fit to serve as shelters during heavy rains. “They wouldn’t withstand another earthquake, but they would survive a hurricane,” Semelfort said.

Another undertaking is obtaining prefabricated housing, and land, in order to relocate people from the camps. The first 200 prefab cabins, donated by Colombia to the community of Cabaret in the north, are about to arrive.

The project will be the first of many such efforts, which will be insufficient, however, because officials in Haiti estimate that a maximum of 200,000 people could be settled in prefab housing. Moreover, they would not be in place in time for the rainy season, in the country that was already the poorest in the hemisphere prior to the quake.

Even before Jan. 12, many Haitians were living in slums, or were homeless, Semelfort pointed out. “There was already a high level of vulnerability before, and since the earthquake it is almost total,” the Haitian meteorologist said.

While the authorities and experts attempt to come up with solutions, survivors of the earthquake pray that this year, the rainy and hurricane season will start late and will be mild.

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