BY JACQUELINE CHARLES and DAVID OVALLE
PORT-AU-PRINCE — One family has used a Haitian flag to pitch its tent at Mais Gate, a shantytown for the homeless near Port-au-Prince airport. Another fashioned its tent from a five-by-five cloth adorned with an image of Jesus.
Residents say only about a dozen of nearly 1,000 families there have real tents. The rest are makeshift dwellings erected with wooden branches, dug in the ground with machetes and rocks.
Haitian and relief officials are asking the world to send tents, tents and more tents to shelter hundreds of thousands of homeless who are sleeping outdoors before a mini-rain season starts next month.
“If it rains, we’ll get all wet,” said Dieubon Accine, 17, whose family improvised their tent from USAID rice and bean sacks. “And the ground will turn into mud.”
From his makeshift dwelling, he could see over the airport wall to where U.S. Army soldiers have erected a sea of large green tents. “Now those are real tents,” Accine said.
The quake so ravaged the nation’s infrastructure that even President René Préval is having a tent pitched on the lawn of the rubbled National Palace — to serve as an office. Meantime, he issued an urgent international appeal Monday for 200,000 tents, each of which can hold a family of eight.
Haiti also needs tents for classrooms.
Elizabeth Préval, the first lady, said the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Haiti on Jan. 12 destroyed about 500 schools, leaving an estimated 1.5 million children out of class.
Preval said she is consulting with Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, first lady of the Dominican Republic, to get psychological counseling for the children while the Haitian government considers ways to resume their education, possibly creating classrooms in tents.
“They’ve begun to think about reopening schools, even if not traditional,” she said. “The children are in shock.”
Meantime, Preval received a gift Tuesday — a white envelope with stars drawn in black ink by a 6-year-old girl named Ellie.
“For the people of Haty” read the envelope, which the girl’s father, a BBC journalist, delivered to the first lady on the palace grounds.
Two weeks after the quake, celebrities continue to use their star power to try to ease the suffering of the Haitian people.
Actor John Travolta piloted a Boeing 707 into Port-au-Prince Monday night with 50 doctors, 7,000 pounds of medical supplies and 4,500 military rations onboard for hungry Haitians. He returned to Miami later the same day, shuttling an unknown number of Haitian Americans home in the trip, which was sponsored by the Church of Scientology.
Rescue efforts have been refocused on recovery. Senior officials from 19 nations met in Montreal Monday to start mapping out a 10-year rebuilding effort.
U.N. officials in Port-au-Prince said Tuesday they were close to deciding on sites outside the capital to house since-recaptured prisoners who escaped in the earthquake.
Some 5,100 prisoners escaped, 36 of whom have been caught in Les Cayes and Jacmel, to the south and far west of the capital, said Vincenzo Pugliese, spokesman for the United Nations peacekeepers known as MINUSTAH.
He stressed that most were not convicts but rather Haitians under arrest who were awaiting criminal trials.
“Most of the people do not represent a threat,” he said, adding that security officials do not believe previously dismantled gangs will regroup.
U.S. and U.N. officials plan to build housing areas for recaptured inmates. A U.S. assessment team was scheduled to arrive Tuesday to help Haitian officials decide on locations for the prisoner housing areas, most likely outside of the capital.
But in the short term, the focus is on tents and other temporary shelters as a stepping stone toward a more normal way of life.
“Schools will reopen. They will reopen under tents,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid declared at a U.S. military and civilian teleconference from Port-au-Prince.
No timetable was offered. “This is a government of Haiti decision that they intend to implement and they are looking to the international community for help,” said Duguid. “They are there, and they are working.”
Homelessness, added U.S. Ambassador Louis Lucke, is “a huge issue,” citing estimates of 800,000 homeless in this capital city of two million.
“The immediate thing is for us to provide temporary shelter,” Lucke said. “The rains haven’t started yet, fortunately, but it’s not going to be that case forever, so we have to help.”
In Washington, the State Department’s P.J. Crowley reported Monday that 363 Haitian orphans have been evacuated to the United States and more were “in the pipeline, perhaps a couple hundred more.” Haitian government officials have to issue permits for each orphan to leave their homeland.
About 460 Haitian citizens were also granted humanitarian parole “for medical and other reasons” to come to the United States.
The United States also has confirmed 59 Americans were killed in the quake: an embassy official, three U.S. government workers’ family members and 55 private citizens.
As hopes of finding survivors fade, the State Department, Defense Department and Human Services Department have begun working on a plan to bring back the remains of American citizens in the absence of functioning mortuaries or commercial flights, State Department spokeswoman Virginia Staab said.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.
This is another one of those situations where Preval says one thing to his tame journalist on the Miami Herald, and says something quite different in Haiti. Preval has been offered a massive number of tents but has refused them.
He says that giving tents to Haitians will see them remain where they are. He wants to forcefully move 400,000 Haitians into desolate areas of Haiti and place them in camps. He has made no studies of how the logistical nightmare will be handled…how sanitary demands will be met, how water will be supplied, how they will be fed, what will they do for work…..? He will have to put razor-wire around these concentration camps with armed guards….if something positive is not planned.
He comments about the majority of the prisoners that escaped…as being harmless. This is true. I know one artist who was jailed – indefinitely – for stealing a painting worth $10 US in order to feed his family.
However, Preval ordered all the prisoners released as a cover for his release of 65 major gang-leaders owing allegiance to him. They have returned to their areas and moved to regain control…with funding from the Palace. These escapees have already been responsible for the “necklacing” of those who challenge their authority.
It is time for Preval to fade into the sunset with the few hundred million dollars he has managed to steal.