A draft report produced for USAID has been circulating online and has generated controversy as a result of its estimates of the death toll numbers from last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti which don’t match up with previously published figures. While media outlets have latched onto this sensational story and tied it in to the discussion over continued assistance to Haiti, there are other aspects of the paper that appear much more relevant to the current situation of relief efforts in Haiti.
To begin with, the report – even if its results are only partially reliable – makes it clear that there are an extremely large number of people living in damaged and dangerous housing. According to the report, many people have returned to housing once slated for destruction, a phenomenon we have written about previously.
As Timothy Schwartz, the lead author of the study, writes:
It means that as many as 570,178 people (114,493 residential groups or families) are living in 84,951 homes that may collapse in foul weather or in the event of another tremor. That’s yellow buildings. For Red buildings it means that 465,996* people (100,430 residential groups) are living in 73,846 buildings that might collapse at any moment. Discussing the growing problem of people returning to unsafe yellow and red buildings, Dr. Miyamoto emphasized the gravity of the situation,
"Occupied yellow and red houses are extremely dangerous since many are a collapse hazard. People occupy these houses despite communications and warnings from MTPTC engineers since they have nowhere to go but the camps. People do not want to stay in these tents. Security is poor and they are exposed to diseases. I see little children sleeping next to the heavily cracked walls every day."
The report’s assessment that many at-risk buildings are currently occupied leads its authors to lower the estimate of rubble to be removed. As the original estimate was based on the number of buildings marked "red" for demolition, the report lowers the figure from 8.8 to 3.2 million cubic meters. Schwartz writes, "Now, unless someone is going to remove people from 64% of Red buildings now occupied, we can now cut that figure by two thirds, to 3.168 million M3 [from 8.8]." The story is not so much that the amount of rubble is less, but that people are now living in what once was classified as "rubble".
The report’s authors also significantly lower the estimate of displaced people in camps based, again, on their assessment of the high occupancy rate of at-risk buildings. While this inference is methodologically questionable (e.g., the authors’ study does not extend to the camps themselves), there is one troubling fact that merits greater attention: because of a lack of better housing alternatives, people are resorting to occupying homes that could collapse. The deplorable conditions in many tent camps – as noted in a recent Congressional letter – could well be leading desperate individuals and families to reoccupy at-risk buildings.
Finally, while the death toll and IDP numbers may get headlines, and many are rightly worried that the report could be used to justify assistance cuts, the study does not portray a Haiti that needs less help. As Schwartz concludes in the paper, "It means that we may be facing a massive second crisis if we do not help people with the 73,846 inhabited buildings that may collapse at any moment or the 84,951 inhabited buildings that may collapse in heavy wind or foul weather."
Reasonable arguments can be made concerning the methodology around the death toll and the number of IDPs, but the primary objective of the study was to measure the occupancy rate of the color-marked houses, and it is on this front that the report provides the most relevant and alarming data.