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As rains arrive, Haitians brace for more disaster

A quake, rainy season and hurricanes, in rapid succession. How much more suffering will natural disasters bring to Haiti?

Residents of the Tapis Vert internally displaced persons camp navigate the mud and sewage after overnight rains soaked the tent village, Feb. 28, 2010. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Mudslides leveled villages and flood waters washed over cities when tropical storm Jeanne struck Haiti in 2004. There was nothing to hold the earth in place — deforestation had wiped out trees and roots across the country's mountains.

As torrential rains begin to fall on this earthquake-ravaged country, Jeanne serves as a not-so-distant reminder that Haiti could be in store for even more suffering this year.

Four days of heavy rains in late February triggered a mudslide that partly destroyed a primary school in Haiti’s second largest city Cap Haitien. Four children were killed and eight seriously injured. In the southwest port of Les Cayes, floodwaters caused 13 deaths, forcing people to take refuge on their roofs as the deluge flooded 60 percent of the city. Houses collapsed, while patients at hospitals had to be moved.

“We face an almost unique set of circumstances generated by a catastrophic quake, a rainy season, and a hurricane season, one after the other in rapid succession,” Ian Logan, head of operations for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Port-au-Prince, said in a press briefing.

The stakes are even higher with the mass displacement of people. An estimated 1.3 million people fled the capital Port-au-Prince after the quake, and many have sought shelter in the Artibonite Valley, the country’s breadbasket. While the flat region is considered seismically safer than Port-au-Prince, its low-lying plain is vulnerable to flooding.

Half of newly displaced Haitians haven't received tents, tarps or rolls of plastic sheeting to use as shelter. And none of that would serve as adequate protection from floods or mudslides — let alone high-velocity hurricane winds.

For now, it’s a race to build or deliver prefabricated earthquake- and hurricane-resistant transitional housing for such a large population.

Colorado State University hurricane forecaster Philip Klotzbach said it's impossible to know how many storms might hit Haiti. Klotzbach and his colleague William Gray predicted in November that there would be 11 to 16 named storms, six to eight hurricanes and three to five major hurricanes during the Atlantic basin's 2010 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November.

Jeanne was a lesson, said Klotzbach: "That storm did a lot of damage in Haiti,” he said. “It doesn’t even take a major hurricane.” The death toll topped 3,000 with almost 2,900 Haitians killed in mud-encrusted Gonaives, most from mudslides and flooding. In 2008, Haiti suffered four hurricanes in succession: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, leaving an estimated 1 million homeless.