Record UN appeal highlights Haiti's urgent needs By M.J. Smith PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 18 (AFP) — Heavy rain Thursday in Haiti's capital worsened squalid camps and highlighted the urgent need for shelter after last month's quake, as the UN called for a record 1.44 billion dollars in aid. More than a month after what some experts say could be the worst natural disaster in modern history, aid workers are racing against time to try to distribute enough tarpaulins to the more than one million left homeless. Even those will provide only basic protection when the rainy season begins around May, aid officials say. "Everything was wet," said Joseph Jean-Luc, 30, as he helped a friend build a shelter by nailing together branches at a massive tent city that used to be a country club golf course overlooking Port-au-Prince. Many spent Thursday washing mud-caked clothes, drying out mattresses and waiting in line for vaccinations. Others dug small trenches around makeshift tents in a bid to keep them from flooding again. Reflecting the massive needs in what was already the poorest country in the Americas before the quake, UN chief Ban Ki-moon launched the world body's largest ever appeal for humanitarian aid. The request for 1.44 billion dollars to assist earthquake victims, a year-long appeal, includes a 577-million-dollar request made in the aftermath of the devastating quake. "As the rainy season is coming to Haiti, it will be extremely important to provide on a priority basis shelters, sanitation and other necessary humanitarian assistance," Ban said in New York. He spoke at a ceremony attended by his special envoy for Haiti, former US president Bill Clinton, and UN humanitarian chief John Holmes. "We are with you," Ban said to the people of Haiti. "We will help you to recover and rebuild." Clinton stressed the need for donors to follow through with their commitments. "Pledge less and give it. And do it sooner than later," he said. The former US leader also vowed transparency in the use of donated funds by posting how the money is spent at the HaitiSpecialEnvoy.org website. Previously, the largest natural disaster appeal -- 1.41 billion dollars -- was issued in 2005 in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Distribution of shelter material got off to a slow start following the massive earthquake, in part due to debate over the best strategy, and aid workers are now rushing to hand out tarpaulins ahead of the heavy rains. UN officials say only about 272,000 people have been reached with shelter materials so far following the disaster that killed more than 217,000 people. Canadian Deputy Commanding General Nicolas Matern of the Haiti Joint Task Force said tarpaulin deliveries were being ramped up to try to reach all of the homeless with some form of shelter before the rainy season. Officials are hoping to carry out a similar effort being done with food distribution, though the problem is vastly more complicated because of camp conditions, among other issues. After a stumbling start, aid workers launched a major food distribution push at the end of January, and a total of more than two million people have now been reached with some kind of food, UN officials say. Many Haitians, however, still say they have received nothing, while some of those that have benefited from distributions say they have only been given a limited supply of rice. Matern acknowledged tarpaulins were only basic protection in the rainy season, but said it was the best strategy to try to reach everyone since the needs were so daunting. "There is an impression out there that we will be able to turn around and build transitional shelter with framing and all that by the rainy season. Forget it," he said. "It ain't going to happen. We don't have the resources nor the time to do it." In the case of 10 Americans charged with kidnapping in Haiti, the two still being held here were sent back to jail Thursday after the judge said he would visit the orphanage where they claimed they planned to take the kids. Related article: Judge sends two Americans back to jail The other eight were released Wednesday and returned home, but the charges have not been dropped. Haitian authorities arrested them three weeks ago as they tried to cross into the Dominican Republic with a busload of 33 children they said they believed to be orphans. It later emerged many of the children had parents. Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who earlier said the Americans' case was distracting from his country's urgent needs, said he hoped the judge's decision to free eight of them would shift the focus. "We don't want to focus on the Americans' case," he said.