Storm Weary Haiti Braces for the Rains

  • Posted on: 1 June 2009
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Hurricane season has begun.  Flooding  will be inevitable each year until environmental degradation is reversed.  Still, leadership, preparation, and coordination can mitigate the human and economic costs.  Jacqueline Charles describes, in the Miami Herald, the last minute efforts of the Haitian government to bolster infrastructure in Haiti's most vulnerable cities, yet to recover from the consequences of last year's storms.  Haiti is more ready than it was last year, but still has a long way to go. 


Joicilia Mercius, a frail-looking woman who lives in a hillside tent city of canvas and soiled bedsheets, feels a sense of dread at even the slightest hint of rain.  First her heart leaps. Then her mind flashes back to last September when she grabbed hold of her four children and trudged through waist-high water that swallowed her humble home and buried it in mud.


''If we get the same kinds of storms we had last year, I will die. I've accepted that,'' said Mercius, 56, among more than 400 families living in a sprawling encampment on the eastern edge of this flood-prone Haitian city. ''I can't do it,'' she said. ``I don't have the strength to run to the hills.''


As the Atlantic hurricane season kicks off Monday, Mercius and countless other desperately poor Haitians fear an environmentally fragile Haiti is no more ready to weather this season's storms than last year, when a succession of tropical storms and hurricanes in a span of 30 days killed almost 800, left hundreds of thousands homeless and caused $1 billion in damage.


''I can't say we are ready. But we are better prepared than we were last year,'' said Haitian Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé. ``The government has made more of an effort . . . to control the risks from flooding, because we learned a lot.''


In the past few weeks, millions of dollars worth of heavy machinery has been dispatched to vulnerable cities like Gonaives in the northwest, Les Cayes in the southwest and the small town of Cabaret, just north of Port-au-Prince, where the bodies of dozens of children washed up following the fourth storm, Hurricane Ike.


The Bureau of Civil Protection, led by the country's lead disaster coordinator, recently launched a campaign asking the question, ''Are We Ready?'' And volunteers in several communities have been armed with bullhorns to alert of looming disasters.


'We are making a huge effort to try and develop the kind of culture we want to have,'' said coordinator Dr.  Yolène Surena, who concedes the plan is far from perfect but a good start. ``We want people to understand they live in a country at risk, and if they live in a high-risk country they need to have a certain kind of attitude.''


Heavy rains this year already have killed at least 11 people, and left more than 600 newly homeless.  Rains in the southeast washed out a critical road that a U.N. World Food Program (WFP) truck used to deliver food to Baie d'Orange, where dozens of children died last year from storm-related malnutrition. WFP is now trying to find other means of reaching the isolated community.


In the Artibonite Valley, where barren mountain slopes surrounding Gonaives have left the city vulnerable to lethal flash floods, recent rains triggered such a panic that residents ran to rooftops and into the hills. The city, which sits like a clogged bathtub, has the added problem of bad drainage and accumulated earth that quickly turns to mud.


''The season could be very tough,'' said Myrta Kaulard, the WFP representative. ``Because people and infrastructure have not recovered yet from last year and are more vulnerable, a small rain can have the impact of a storm.''


That reality is not lost on the people of Gonaives, where eight months after Tropical Storm Hanna, bulldozers are still trying to remove millions of cubic millimeters of mud. The city is one of several that authorities have targeted for intense hurricane preparation. The focus has turned the city into an oversized construction pit with workers feverishly trying to unclog canals blocked with mud and debris, repair three major drains and expand and deepen miles of the La Quinte River, the principal waterway that runs through the city.


Haitian President René Préval traveled to the city three times in recent days to oversee the work. Among his concerns: the La Quinte River, where dredging only recently began and has been hobbled by a dispute between Haitian authorities and the international partners also involved in the work.


Critics say the European Union and U.S. Agency for International Development, which agreed to finance a portion of the river's rehabilitation, are taking too long to get the job done.  Meanwhile, donors have expressed their own concerns, including whether a government-run construction outfit known as CNE is qualified to take on such huge infrastructure assignments. They complain that while the outfit has the heavy machinery -- the government bought $90 million worth after the storms -- vehicles are always lacking gas, and there is not enough technical expertise.


Frustrated, the government recently directed CNE to begin work on the 1.5 mile stretch of the river that CHF International was supposed to begin work on under the $16 million bid it won from USAID. CHF Country Director Alberto Wilde said the delay wasbecause of a required environmental impact study, and by the bidding process. ''People tend to rush into things. They want to see action but sometimes the preparation takes longer than the execution itself,'' Wilde said. Wilde and others say that the decision to widen the river to 40 meters instead of the 25 meters is contrary to the recommendation of a July 2008 EU study.


''There are environmental implications when you do anything with rivers,'' said Alex Deprez, USAID acting deputy mission director. ``The work needs to be done based on sound environmental and engineering studies, and it takes time to do work that will stand the test of the next storm season."


Haiti's Agriculture Minister Joanas Gué said the decision to widen the river is based on Haiti's own study. ''What is important for us is protecting lives and investments, and limiting the risks,'' Gué said. ``CHF had money in their hands and up until now, they are not ready. We have no choice but to take the lead in Gonaives. Any little rain, people put their suitcases on their heads and start to run.''


Still, Haiti is treating the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause -- its deforested mountains. ''After the river has been high and some houses have been flooded, that is when you see them coming with their bulldozers to try and do something, after the damage has been done,'' Gonaives Pastor Michel Morisset said. Morisset's Mission Evangelique Eben-Ezer church sits just off the national road, still buried underneath a newly formed lake, forcing visitors to take a grueling, 25-minute detour in or out of the city. Across the street from the church, three dozen families are living in tents.


''It's not safe,'' Morisset said of the blue tarps he recently got upgraded with a zinc ceiling and concrete slab floor. ``But it's a lot better than the [other] tents. It's not anything close to what the people need to feel safe. It's not a home.''


Further inland, dozens of residents complain that they are living in misery. ''Hunger is killing us, misery is killing us, the rains are soaking us,'' said Antoinette Paul, a 48-year-old who had to scatter her eight children around town. ''They say they would like to do this for us, discussions go back and forth but nothing is resolved. They say we don't have any problems. That is a lie,'' she said. ``You are sleeping, scorpions are biting you; snakes are crawling on top of you. The misery is just too much for us.''


Bien-Aimé said everyone living in temporary shelters was given money by the government to return home. The state, he said, can't afford to keep taking care of storm victims, but added those still living in tents will be relocated.


''They all have pretty words, but we haven't seen any action on behalf of the people,'' said Osnel Clairilus, 20, adding that they last received potable water in February from a government truck. ''Giving us a few dollars doesn't solve the problem.  What we need is a place to live,'' he said. ``We have children we have to clothe and feed and send to school.''

Photo Credit: FAVACA

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