First Person

In Delmas 62, making do with what remains

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Earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort, where they join over 200 Oxfam staff already on the ground. Here’s her latest update, dated January 20.

Their new address–not one anyone would have chosen willingly–is Delmas 62, a sprawling yard of sharp stones and broken pavement broad enough to sleep nearly 1,000 people.

By day, about 300 people live here, Port-au-Prince earthquake survivors whose homes have been reduced to rubble. But when darkness falls, the yard swells with people too afraid to spend the night in their own beds. And with the crowds come all the problems of crowd management. Where will they get water? Where will they go to the bathroom?

Oxfam is working to solve those problems here and in other spontaneous camps that have cropped up since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the capital more than a week ago, leaving more than 250,000 people homeless.

Yesterday, Oxfam delivered 3,000 gallons of water to the people camped here. And we’re exploring the possibility of erecting a water bladder that could provide a more continuous supply. At the moment, the chlorine-treated water is coming by truck. Oxfam is buying the water from a private company, which ports it in on tank trucks that can hold up to 3,000 gallons each. People line up with their buckets and lug them back, full, to the plots they’ve staked out for themselves.

Nearby stands a swimming pool, with steps leading down to its bottom and a broad flat surface surrounding its upper edge. This is where the bladder–a collapsible water tank that works by having gravity pull the water out–could stand. In the afternoon, we trek back to the camp with an emergency program officer from Caritas Canada to evaluate the site more carefully. In this response, aid groups are making an effort to share not only their knowhow but their materials to reach as many people as possible, and this officer has access to a bladder that can hold 15,000 liters of water.

But after checking out the site, it appears the bladder is too big, and may be put to better use in a location with more people–where the needs may be even greater.

On this patch of hard earth, where people have stretched blankets to serve as beds, water isn’t the only necessity in limited supply. Toilets don’t exist. People are using bags and tossing them into a pit at the back of the site. As Oxfam staffers huddle to discuss what could quickly become a serious health problem, a tall thin man, who has been following us through the camp, pokes his head into our circle.

“We need a bathroom,” he pleads in English.

And what else?

Everything, I think to myself. They need everything.

Just beyond the camp is what’s left of their homes–a ravine full of vaguely architectural shapes now covered in dust. One man, whose home is in ruins, tells me that for the most part Haitians don’t have insurance. From whom would they collect? he asks with a wan smile, before moving off to find his family–the one thing he does have left.

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