PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — U.S. military engineers hope to protect a quarter of a million homeless Haitians from flash floods and mudslides by clearing blocked canals, moving people back to intact homes and sending others to new settlements on the edge of Port-au-Prince.

Lt Gen. Ken Keen, commander of Joint Task Force Haiti, said last week that 250,000 Haitians, out of 1.3 million left homeless by January’s earthquake, are camped in parts of the capital that could be hit by floods next month when the annual rainy season arrives.

“Everyone realizes that the rainy season is only a few weeks away,” he said. “There is recognition that a number of these encampments are a high risk of flash floods and mud slides based on history.”

Most of the work to safeguard the homeless Haitians is being done by the United Nations, the Haitian government and aid groups with U.S. military engineers helping oversee the effort through a U.N. Project Management Coordination Cell.

The engineers’ long-term preference is for those camped in flood-prone areas to move to five large camps planned for the periphery of Port-au-Prince. However, limited resources mean that’s not going to happen before the rains come, Keen said.

So U.S. personnel are working with the Haitian government, the U.N. and overseas donors on a multi-pronged effort to protect people from floods, he said.

One part of that effort involves persuading Haitians in the flood-prone camps, whose homes are deemed habitable, to move back to their old neighborhoods.

“They (U.S. military engineers) think they can put 100,000 people back into those neighborhoods including those who can go into their houses and others who can camp in rubble-free areas near their former homes,” Keen said.

Another part of the engineers’ plan is to find 56 vacant lots in safe parts of the city where rubble can be cleared to make way for people moved out of the endangered camps. The Haitian government, however, first must negotiate with the private owners of the land, Keen said.

Col. David Johnson, JTF public affairs officer, said another part of the strategy is to provide support to families living in homes that survived the earthquake in the hope that they will take in more of their displaced countrymen.

The engineers have pinpointed several camps occupied by 120,000 Haitians as the most susceptible to flash floods, according to Project Management Coordination Cell director U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Blackwell.

“They’ve been identified for complete evacuation,” he said.

Engineer Paulo Oliveira-Martins, 42, of Portugal, who’s also part of the Project Management Coordination Cell, said some of the 30,000 people camped in the Champs De Mars — a large park near the ruins of the National Palace — can be relocated to public waste land on the eastern edge of the city.

“It’s an area less prone to flooding,” he said. “It’s on high ground and not close to any rivers.”

Blackwell, who works out of an office at the U.N. compound at Port-au-Prince’s airport alongside half a dozen U.S. military engineers and a dozen multinational staff, said work to prepare the ground at the first new camp — dubbed Tabarra Issa — started on Monday.

“People should be able to move in there by the end of the month,” Blackwell said.

However, $11 million in funding has yet to be found to build three safe camps on the edge of the city that would house up to 80,000 people, the 43-year-old Galveston, Texas, native said.

One of the most important projects that the Project Management Coordination Cell is coordinating involves cleaning out nine large canals that drain flood water from Port-au-Prince, he said.

“The canals are the key,” he said. “You have to get the water out of the city. That’s probably 40 percent of the problem.”

Blackwell said the city’s nine large canals spanning 12 1/2 miles weren’t badly damaged by the earthquake. However, there are numerous blockages in the canals from trash and debris that has accumulated during years of neglect.

Work has already begun on a two-week effort to clean the Ophelin Canal and the United States Agency for International Development has pledged $4.5 million to clear three more canals but donors have yet to fund clean-up of the remaining waterways, he said.

The engineers are also looking at emergency measures such as sandbagging and smaller drainage ditches that could be put in place if their plan fails to move all of the homeless Haitians from the flood prone camps, he said.

“However, those options will only work if the canals are clear,” he said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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