Former Gonaives Resident Recalls Better Days

Gonaives relief

A girl carries water from a bore hole, one of the few sources of clean water in the city of Gonaives after Hurricane Ike flooded the city. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Once surrounded by acres of lush crops, Gonaives residents never had to travel far to fill their pantries. When one neighbor cooked, a small community was fed.

These are the memories that Gonaives born Marie St. Louis holds dear. “When I was in Haiti I never found a bad day in Gonaives,” says the petite 56-year-old parishioner of Saint James Catholic Church in North Miami, Florida. The fields were abundant with rice, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, shallots and avocado trees, she counts on each finger.

Of the church volunteers who helped pack relief shipments for Haiti, St. Louis seemed the most reserved and concentrated on her task. She was the only one from Gonaives. Of all of Haiti’s 10 departments that were affected by massive flooding, Gonaives got a triple dose of damage. Today, residents face a clean-up of tons of residual mud and crop rehabilitation. ¬†Thousands of homes were destroyed, including St. Louis’ house in Gonaives. ¬†

She has lived in the United States for 20 years. But like many concerned parishioners, she sympathizes with Haitians who have endured recurring upheaval from political violence, natural disaster and a pre-existing food crisis.

Gonaives was propelled into the international spotlight in 2004 when Tropical Storm Jeanne left the port city underwater, killing thousands. “Since I was young I always saw flooding but never like Jeanne or Gustav”-one of the four storms that wreaked havoc on Haiti last summer. St. Louis blames the damage and stress caused by Hurricane Jeanne for her father’s death. “He was thinking too much about what happened,” she said. “He lost everything.”

Haiti’s peril has motivated residents in the U.S., whether of Haitian descent or not, to help. Over a dozen parishes and dioceses have sister partnerships with Haitian towns such as Gonaives. When disasters strike they are as much on the front lines of relief as our staff in the field. As one of the largest aid organizations working in Haiti, Catholic Relief Services was on the ground from the start of the storm disaster. Thus far, we have provided over 40,000 residents with emergency food and hygiene supplies. In Gonaives, we initiated a cash-for-work clean-up effort that employed locals to clear the mud from roadways and schools. As a result, 26 schools have reopened. CRS continues to find ways to help Gonaives residents recover with dignity. Support to our Latin America and Caribbean Severe Weather Fund.

– Kai T. Hill is associate web producer for CRS.

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