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Haiti: What will Hurricane Tomas do?

It’s raining outside. And raining hard. But the wind that was throwing the trees around earlier today seems to have died down. Haiti is waiting, but we’re still to find out what for.

Everyone has been trying to work out what Hurricane Tomas is going to do. For days I’ve been poised over complicated graphs and charts attempting to calculate rainfall and wind speeds gaining little or no clarity. One moment Tropical storm Tomas is heading straight for Haiti’s land mass bringing wind speeds of up to 70 miles an hour. Four hours later he’d been demoted to a mere tropical depression and looked like he was heading west, missing most of the island. This morning he’d been given hurricane status once again.

Hurricanes, it seems, are unpredictable things. But one thing is certain. People here are scared. And with good reason. Even 15 inches of rain and strong winds could rip away the precarious shelters that are home to thousands of families here. And with so many living in such close proximity, a wooden pole flying loose from the ground could be fatal.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the added boost Tomas could give to the cholera outbreak that has now killed more than 442 people here. Heavy rains — in this case potentially for days — means flooding. And floods in temporary camps where more than a million people live means filth, sewage and rubbish washing across homes and coming to rest in large, stagnant pools. Nothing could be more attractive to a deadly water-borne bacteria.

Merese, a 34 year old mum who invites me into her tent to introduce me to her three-day-old baby, Michelet, is only too aware of the dangers. She lives in one of the most cramped camps I’ve ever visited here. Her tarpaulin tent is crammed in amongst others with no space in between to create any semblance of privacy.

I shake tiny hands with eight-year-old Samuel, ten-year-old Emmanuel, 14-year-old Rachelle and 16-year-old Lignel, Merese’s other children. Despite their apparent confidence, Merese tells me they’re terrified. “They know there’s a cyclone coming and they keep grabbing me,” she says.  She shows me where, even during short showers, water runs through the roof of the tent and soaks everything below. “I don’t know what will happen,” she says. I’ve got nowhere to go. It’s not the right place for a new baby.”

Tomas — while not unexpected (hurricane season doesn’t end until late November) — is the third major disaster Haiti has faced this year. Preparations, where possible, have been made. Aid agencies have pre-positioned stocks, dug drainage channels in camps and helped people strengthen their tents. And since there are few hurricane shelters in Haiti, the government has been encouraging people living in camps to identify safer places where they can stay — with friends or relatives — in the event of such a storm.

But for many families, the earthquake destroyed everything they had, including the luxury of such a refuge. I look out of my window at the heavy rain and think back to Merese and her family. As one of her neighbours told me, when it rains at night, they all have to stand, as everything gets so wet.

With more than 800 aid workers on the ground and supplies ready, Save the Children teams are poised to go back into the camps as soon as it is safe to do so to assess the damage and start getting emergency help to families that need it. But for now, we are all left to wait and see what Tomas will do.

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