Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tent Cities

As I rode to the airport last week, I was enjoying the way Delmas 33 almost looked like a normal pre-quake neighborhood. People were walking to work, merchants were selling bananas and mangoes. If you ignored the collapsed buildings, it would have seemed like business as usual.

Then, at the top of one of the many hills on Delmas 33, I noticed something I had not seen before across the street from where a police station stood before the 12the of January. A tent city, its tin roofs glinting in the early morning sun.  A tent city, where a week ago there had not been a tent city to my knowledge. As the car dipped downhill with the road I saw how expansive the tent city was. It rolled with the landscape and seemed to stretch out for miles.

This was when I realized that tent cities have become Port-au-Prince's new urban sprawl.

Later, while driving to and from Leogane, my thought was confirmed as I saw all the places that tent communities had been established. I took as many pictures as I could. Some are below.
What is clear to me is that not all tent cities are equal. Class is everything in Haiti, and that even extends to Port-au-Princes tent cities. Remember that even the middle class lost homes, and there are former professionals who have lost everything living in these tent cities.
Then tent cities next to the airport have a very organized and polished look (comparatively). They were the first to receive aid after the quake because they were closest to the place where all the aid workers were- the airport. Johnny Aidworker from insert-aid-organization-here could walk outside of the guarded airport compound, hand out a tent, tarp, or blanket and feel like he had done a good deed. Thus, the tent cities around the airport are well equipped and well fed.
The further you get from the airport, the more the "tent" cities look like this- a shelter made of whatever the occupant can find. Scraps of wood, cardboard, metal. In other words, trash. Most have a tarp over them to keep the rain out.
All of the tarps from US AID say "From The American People". I am sure it sounded good when it was suggested in some Washington office. But seeing so many of them and seeing them draped over sticks and trash to make a shelter seems like a cruel and mocking joke now. Every time I see one (which is any time I leave my apartment), I feel punched in the stomach by the irony and the contrast.
This is what the the skeleton of a tent looks like. Sticks, which are not hurricane proof
There are different kinds of tent cities- ones on hills like at Delmas 33 and ones that look to be below ground.
There are tent cities on the medians in the middle of roads. If you look above, you will see shacks that straddle the narrow strip of land that separates the lanes of traffic on National Highway 1. What this picture does not show well is that they stretch on for miles,  stopping only where there is a break in the median.

There are even empty tent cities.
Empty? Maybe it is because I am currently reading Catch-22, but seeing empty tent cities feels like some elaborate plot of an Absurdist novel.
The biggest concern about tent cities has to be the suffering of women. Go ahead and do a Google search for "Haiti Tent Cities and Rape" you will get approximately 161,000 results. Newspapers from the Washington Post to the Tokyo Times are reporting on it.

I was really pleased to hear that the Haitian government/US/UN/major NGOs have changed their plan away from wanting to relocate people out of Port to the countryside. Now the plan seeks to clear rubble off of people's land so they can move out of tent cities and back into their old neighborhoods. Better a tent on your own property than a tent in a giant unsanitary, unsafe slum. 



  1. Ben,
    Thanks for another local report.
    Can you explain empty tent cities?
    Somehow the last part of this one reminded me of my Florida family who survived the 2 or 3 back to back hurricanes (Frances, Jean,& Ivan) in I think it was 2005. They all just wanted to be on their own property not in a hotel somewhere. Even if it meant a trailer, or tarped house or whatever. I realize what people are facing in Haiti both before & after the quake is not the same but just wanting to be where you belong - with people you know, hopefully trust is the same.
    I continue to pray.

  2. Hey Vicky,

    I cannot say with certainty why they were empty. No one was around to ask!

    After I wrote this entry I had a great conversation with a friend who is an Air Force LT who happens to be working here in Port-au-Prince. He told me that there are plans to relocate some people from flood prone areas to higher ground. I cannot verify that is why there was an empty tent city but I think it is a realistic assumption.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Ben and Katie,
    I love following your blog. Thanks for the time you spend sharing.
    I have a quick question. In one of the pictures you see tennis shoes hanging from the top of the tent. They don't seem to match. Any ideas?

    We will continue to pray for the people of Haiti.


  4. Jennifer,

    Good eye! I didn't notice that until I was posting them for the blog. They seem to be strung together in someway.

    But really I have no idea why. Your guess is as good as mine.

    Thank you for praying and reading.



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