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Haiti's Need For Tent Cities Grows More Urgent

A man sets up a tent in a make-shift camp at a golf course on January 24, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Marco Dormino/MINUSTAH
A man sets up a tent in a make-shift camp at a golf course on January 24, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The collapse of much of Haiti's capital has a large part of the nation struggling just to find a place to sleep.

As many as 1 million people — one person in nine across the entire country — need to find new shelter, the United Nations estimates, and there are too few tents, let alone safe buildings, to put them in.

It could take experts weeks to search out sites suitable for enough tent cities to hold earthquake refugees, the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental agency, said Sunday.

"We also need tents. There is a shortage of tents," said Vincent Houver, the Geneva-based agency's chief of mission in Haiti.

Houver said the agency's warehouse in Port-au-Prince holds 10,000 family-size tents, but he estimates 100,000 are needed. The organization has appealed for $30 million to pay for tents and other aid needs and has received two-thirds of that so far, he said.

Haiti's government wants the estimated 700,000 homeless huddled under sheets, boards and plastic in open areas of Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million, to look for better shelter with relatives or others elsewhere. Officials estimate that about 235,000 have taken advantage of its offer of free transport to leave the city, and many others left on their own, some even walking.

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 have returned to the region around the coastal city of Gonaives in northern Haiti, a city abandoned by many after two devastating floods in six years.

"Living in Port-au-Prince is a problem. Going to Gonaives is another problem," said Maire Delphin Alceus. "Everywhere you go is a problem. If I could, I would have left this country and been somewhere else by now. But I have no way to do that."

Her daughter, Katya, was among the thousands killed in Gonaives and the surrounding Artibonite area by the floods of 2004's Tropical Storm Jeanne. The family moved to Port-au-Prince, where the earthquake killed her 26-year-old son and her half-sister, who provided for them by importing clothes and perfume from Miami for resale in Haiti.

What's left of the family is back in Gonaives, which is overlooked by mountains denuded by over-farming and rampant tree cutting for firewood that have cleared a path for destructive floods.

"I'm scared, but I'm living by the will of God," said Alceus, dressed in white after attending Sunday services at an evangelical church.

While more people left Port-au-Prince, the capital was shaken by yet another aftershock Sunday, one of more than 50 since the great quake Jan. 12 that has panicked survivors into running out into the street. Some just froze in fright Sunday. The U.S. Geological Survey said it registered 4.7 magnitude, but there were no reports of further damage.

More than 150,000 quake victims have been buried by the government, an official said Sunday, but she said that doesn't count the bodies still in wrecked buildings, buried or burned by relatives or dead in outlying quake areas.

"Nobody knows how many bodies are buried in the rubble," Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said. Asked about the total number of victims, she said, "200,000? 300,000? Who knows the overall death toll?"

Lassegue told The Associated Press that the government's figure of 150,000 buried from just the capital area was based on figures from CNE, a state company that is collecting corpses and burying them north of Port-au-Prince.

That number would tend to confirm an overall estimate of 200,000 dead reported last week by the European Commission, citing Haitian government sources. As of Monday, the United Nations was reporting at least 112,250 confirmed deaths, based on recovered bodies.

Relatives watched a team recover three bodies from the ruins of a downtown home Sunday, one of many sites where the sad work continued. All three were jammed into a single, roughly made coffin, all the family could afford. They paid a man with a pushcart to take the casket to a nearby cemetery for a burial without ceremony.

The final toll will clearly place the Haiti earthquake among the deadliest natural catastrophes of recent times. That list includes the 1970 Bangladesh cyclone, believed to have killed 300,000 people; the 1974 northeast China earthquake, which killed at least 242,000 people; and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, with 226,000 dead.

Attending to the living, meanwhile, an army of international aid workers was getting more food into people's hands, but still falling short. Food aid has reached 500,000 people at least once, the U.N. reported Sunday, but as many as 2 million people are in need.

"We wish we could do more, quicker," said Josette Sheeran, the U.N. World Food Program chief who was visiting Port-au-Prince.

The WFP delivered about 2 million meals to the needy Friday, up from 1.2 million Thursday, Sheeran said. But she acknowledged much more was needed.

"This is the most complex operation WFP has ever launched," she said.

The scene Sunday in Cite Soleil, the capital's largest and most notorious slum, showed the need. Thousands of men, women and children lined up and waited peacefully for their turn as U.S. and Brazilian troops handed out aid. The Americans gave ready-to-eat meals, high-energy biscuits and bottled water; the Brazilians passed out small bags holding uncooked beans, salt, sugar and sardines as well as water.

Lunie Marcelin, 57, welcomed the handouts, saying it would help her and six grown children. "But it is not enough," she said. "We need more."

Key officials from around the world planned to meet Monday in Montreal to discuss ways to better coordinate relief efforts in Haiti. Canada's government said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and foreign ministers from a host of nations would attend.

The world's nations have pledged some $1 billion in emergency aid to Haiti. Organizers of Friday night's "Hope for Haiti Now" international telethon reported the event raised $57 million, with more pledges from ordinary people still coming in.