The Associated Press November 4, 2010, 4:20PM ET

Haiti homeless caught between eviction and storm

The sky over Port-au-Prince's tarp cities grew dark, the winds picked up and rain began to fall as Tropical Storm Tomas headed for the quake-stricken Haiti on Thursday. Police with megaphones told hundreds of thousands to seek safety, but the homeless had nowhere to go.

An estimated 1.3 million homeless faced their hardest decision since the earthquake: Do they follow the government's advice and leave their slapped together shelters ahead of the storm and risk never being allowed to return? Or do they risk their lives and stay?

"I'm scared that if I leave they'll tear this whole place down. I don't have money to pay for a home somewhere else," said Clarice Napoux, 21, who lives on a soccer field behind the St. Therese church in Petionville.

She and her boyfriend lost their house in the Jan. 12 quake. Their only income is the few Haitian gourdes she makes selling uncooked rice, beans and dry goods.

Haiti's civil protection department has said those living in post-quake camps should go to the homes of friends and family. The departmental coordinator for the area that includes Port-au-Prince, Nadia Lochard, told The Associated Press that buses would be provided on Thursday to take residents away from camps.

But officials have not said where the buses will go.

President Rene Preval warned residents to leave camps in a Thursday radio address, but acknowledged, "The government doesn't have enough places to move everyone."

By Thursday afternoon, Tomas had winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and it was expected to strengthen as it passed near Jamaica or western Haiti overnight, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Its center was 295 miles (475 kilometers) west-southwest of Port-au-Prince and north at 7 mph (11 kph).

In Jamaica, schools were closed in eastern provinces and traffic was jammed in the capital, Kingston, as businesses closed early.

"I'm taking no chances," said Carlton Samms, a bus driver who was going home early after stopping at a supermarket for food and other supplies.

At the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba, the military was clearing away any debris that could fly off in strong winds and ensuring the soldiers and sailors who serve as guards for the 174 detainees have enough supplies, said Navy Cmdr. Tamsen A. Reese, a spokeswoman for the detention center.

Five to 10 inches (12 to 25 centimeters) of rain was forecast for much of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Officials in Haiti maintain a list of thousands of usable shelters in the capital -- often schools and churches -- but it is not being released to the public, despite pressure from international aid groups who say the information could save lives.

"We don't want people to know where these buildings are because people are going to invade and we won't have enough places for the people who really need them," Lochard said.

Most of Haiti's post-quake homeless live under donated plastic tarps on open fields. It is often private land, where they have been constantly fighting forced eviction. A September report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 29 percent of 1,268 camps studied had been closed forcibly, meaning the often violent relocation of tens of thousands of people.

Haitian human-rights lawyer Mario Joseph, who testified on behalf of those evicted before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this summer, said he fears the government is using the storm as an excuse to drive people off disputed land.

"I think it's going to be a time of eviction," he said. He said he has advised people who know they are at risk for floods, landslides and wind damage to stay in buildings near the camp and return to their squatters' sites as soon as possible after the storm.

Reconstruction has barely begun and even the building of transitional shelters -- sturdier than makeshift tents, but not solid houses -- has been slow. Large tranches of long-term funds, including a promised $1.15 billion from the United States, have not arrived.

So the United Nations and aid groups have been giving people reasons to stay, providing aid and essential services such as medicine to the camps. That continued Thursday as residents reluctant to leave were given reinforcing tarps and other materials.

"We have always said that the best way to protect people in camps is to make camps as resistant as possible to any weather," said U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokeswoman Imogen Wall. "(Evacuation) doesn't make sense ... on a practical level, on a large scale."

By Thursday morning there were already problems. Residents of the nearly 8,000-person government relocation camp at Corail-Cesselesse threw bottles at aid workers trying to get them to leave their ShelterBox tents for schools, churches and an abandoned prison nearby.

"If we go away, other people are going to move in our place! We want to stay here because we don't have another place to go," said 29-year-old Roland Jean.

The camp's grounds were designed by U.S. military engineers and graded by the United Nations. But the site, a desert plain 9 miles (15 kilometers) north of the city, constantly floods and suffers wind damage.

Residents were told the tents could resist hurricanes. ShelterBox spokesman Tommy Tonkins said Thursday that they can stand up to heavy rains and 75 mph (120 kph) winds, but are not hurricane-proof.

By the afternoon, camp officials had resolved the dispute and several hundred people began to leave. An AP reporter visited the site ahead of the evacuation and found that while the chosen shelters were large and undamaged, they had no water or usable toilets. Aid workers expect people who flee the camps could stay for days.

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Associated Press writers Jacob Kushner in Croix-des-Bouquets, Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Howard Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica and Mike Melia in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed to this report.


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