Haiti Hit Harder than Expected by Recent Hurricanes

Greg Elder — Catholic Relief Services Deputy Head of Programming for Haiti — spoke from Haiti with Sara Fajardo. Greg reported on what he saw when he arrived in Haiti.

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Some Haitians are resigned to annual storm and flooding disasters, but recent storms hit the country harder than normal. Photo by Alix Innocent/CRS

I was sitting in the Miami airport trying to make my way when Gustav hit. I’d just finished my home leave and all flights were grounded. I knew that immediately after the storm passed we needed to start responding.

We went through hurricane Dean last year, and tropical storm Noel, and that was bad enough. When a hurricane rolls around again those memories are fresh in your mind. Hurricanes are very much a part of daily life. Having two major storms last year, the gut reaction is — it’s happening again.

Gustav’s path of destruction didn’t surprise me. Haiti it seems every year or two has to undergo something like this, we’re right in the path of most hurricanes coming into the Atlantic. Knowing of Gustav’s arrival saddened me because I know the devastation that even a weak storm in Haiti can cause.

This is a country that suffers from severe environmental degradation. In a place like Haiti, where you have severe poverty, it’s hard to tell people to not cut down trees to use or sell. Often it’s their livelihood and their only means of cooking their food. As a result many of the mountains have been stripped of their trees. The soil cannot absorb the rain, so the rain basically gushes down the mountains and into the valleys where you find many of the cities and towns. You don’t have lots of trees or foliage that will absorb or block the water.

I was finally able to make it back to Haiti after Gustav passed. Our relief effort was already under way — then Hanna hit.

She brought with her thunder and lightning. You could hear the winds blowing through the foundations of the buildings. The streets were cleared out as people headed for shelter.

I was expecting flooding, crop loss, some destruction to homes and business, but the flooding that took place, especially in Gonaives, was beyond what I expected. The number of roads that prohibited access to much of the country was a surprise. It didn’t happen to the same extent last year.

It has hindered relief efforts, especially in Gonaives. It wasn’t until two or three days after the storm’s passing that we were finally able to get relief into the cities. Bridges had collapsed, roads were blocked, and you had to find makeshift ways to get where we needed to. Relief agencies were renting helicopters, making makeshift roads to get around the flooded streets and downed bridges. In the south there are some towns that are still very difficult to reach especially for big trucks loaded with food. The road situation even today is a bit risky.

When you have a situation like this with this level of desperation just bringing in trucks can put you in a precarious situation. People see the convoy coming. They’re desperate. You have to bring security. You have to ensure the food doesn’t get into the wrong hands. At times you have pillaging of food trucks. It has happened before in Haiti, so you have to take that into account.

We’ve organized a police escort to take shipments into Gonaives. We use unmarked vehicles or have chosen to take food in at a particular time of day that is safer. We’ve avoided driving at night. Thus far we’ve been able to supply food for 4,000 families for 15 days. A family is considered to be 5 people, so that means we’ve assisted 20,000 Haitians.

Now, in Haiti you see a lot of frustrated faces, a lot of sad faces, even resignation. Haitians have come to accept that they have to live with these storms. That’s very unfortunate. You try and show people that help is on the way. That you are with them in solidarity, that Catholic Relief Services is with them. Caritas is with them. Other agencies are with them. This is not a hopeless cause. They are not being asked to endure this alone.

You always have to keep hope alive. You have to believe that as long as we keep working hard, the economic, social, political situation is going to improve as long as we keep at it. That little bit of hope keeps you going day to day.

The bottom line is that you don’t let the prospect of destruction keep you from continuing the reconstruction and rehabilitation effort. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You move forward together. The next storm, however, is always in the back of everyone’s mind.

— Sara Fajardo

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