PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Aid officials say they have finally figured out where to put hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their homes in a cataclysmic earthquake: right back where they came from.
Dreams of vast relocation camps have largely evaporated due to a lack of available land. And nobody wants to leave people living in the streets under makeshift tents of plastic and bed sheets with the official May 1 start of the rainy season looming.
So Haitians like Marie Carmel Etienne are moving back home, helped by a team funded by the U.S. Defense Department that has promised to remove the debris of shattered buildings in one Port-au-Prince neighborhood if people will dump it in the street in front of their lots.
The 55-year-old stylist in a floppy hat spent better than two decades in Brooklyn and Miami before moving back to Haiti and opening a a beauty parlor in her three-story home. It all collapsed in the Jan. 12 quake, so she has been sleeping under a tree at her mother's house, dodging falling mangoes at night.
She enlisted neighbors to smash the pink-painted concrete into bits and cart them into the street for the American team to pick up.
"My U.S. taxes coming back to me," she said, pointing to a U.S. Navy engineer, Melvin Acree. "My Haitian taxes, they do nothing."
For Acree's team of bulldozer, Bobcat and dump truck drivers, the task seems never ending.
"Look at this! We cleared this street out!" Acree said with a laugh as he stepped into the sauna-like air on a street blocked anew by a mountain of broken concrete and twisted rebar.
Shelter is likely to be the dominant issue at a critical U.N. conference Tuesday in New York, where aid international aid donors are considering about $11.5 billion in aid requests.
Some 1.3 million people lost their homes in the Jan. 12 quake; hundreds of thousands are on the capital's streets, hillsides and dangerous riverbeds with at most a tarp or flimsy wood between them and the sky.
The new plan — now accepted by major international groups including U.N. agencies and the U.S. Agency for International Development — looks like this: Those who can will be encouraged to return to homes that engineers have deemed safe. Those who can't will be given help removing debris so they can return to their own neighborhoods.
Others will try to find host families for the time being. Aid groups will try to improve existing camps for those with no place else to go.
Only a small number, as a last resort, may be moved to relocation camps.
The International Organization of Migration estimates 245,000 individuals are at high risk of flooding or mudslides in the makeshift camps where they now live, though a just-completed U.S. military survey said fewer than 37,000 need to be moved urgently.
Haitian and foreign officials initially proposed huge relocation camps, but that idea has largely fizzled after weeks of fruitless wrangling with private landowners and due to fears they could become new, permanent slums.
Only in the last few days — more than two months after the government proposed the camps — have the first 200 families to move to the first transitional site, an area called Santo 17 on the northeastern outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
Nobody is pushing the new model harder than the U.S. government, whose efforts so far are focused on the neighborhood of Turgeau, a hilly, tree-lined zone of mansions — several home to U.S. Embassy employees — middle-class apartments and concrete slums.
Workers late this month began clearing rubble and cleaning drainage canals. Soon they will start demolishing damaged buildings to make room for new shelter.
"We need to put people in the environment where they're from before they start moving people," said Pierre Ronal Romelus, a neighborhood representative coordinating with the U.S. team.
Not everyone feels like they're getting help.
Dorothy Moise, a 35-year-old nursing student, said she wants help leave the shack her family built after their concrete home crumbled. The metal, wood and tarp structure is better than some — it has a jury-rigged electrical hookup for the television — but water flows across the floor when it rains.
Her 1 1/2-year-old son, Chrisley, has constant diarrhea. Her 6-year-old daughter, Sephara, is home all day because schools remain closed.
The camp manages itself, as has nearly every one in Port-au-Prince for the last two months, with a committee that looks for aid and maintains security. Moise provides some nursing care to her neighbors.
But with no money, they will go wherever someone can provide new homes and jobs.
"I'd go somewhere else if it had everything I need," Moise said. "But this is the place I live, I know it well."
Acree and his workers said they are taking the first step: making land available in the neighborhood itself. The Virginia native, a civilian with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, leads a team of at least 100 Haitians, along with Dominican equipment drivers and U.S. advisers.
In the first week of debris removal, they picked up nearly 90,000 cubic feet worth, trucking it to a recycling center.
Acree sees this as a pilot program that could be expanded across the capital. Going further comes down to money of the sort donors are discussing in New York this week.
Much of the $2.8 billion pledged last week by U.S. President Barack Obama has already been spent on projects, including the Turgeau cleanup.