Cars crossing Gonaives Avenue shoot plumes of murky water from their rears. Men on motorcycles stick to the shoulder of the road, dodging large puddles. As the flooding in this coastal city begins to slowly recede, residents are starting to assess the measure of destruction.
Scattered thunderstorms are still drenching Haiti, which remains on “yellow alert”, with persistent threats of overflowing rivers, floods and landslides — always a danger in a country that has lost 90 percent of its forest cover.
Haitians of all classes dread hurricane season. A week of hard rain in areas like Les Cayes, a seaport in the southwest, means residents must trudge through feet of water. And many feel abandoned to the mercy of the elements.
One couple carrying plastic cans down a street in Gonaives asked, “Where is the state? Why do they wait for the catastrophe before intervening?”
Residents of this city, the capital of the department of Artibonite, which was especially hard-hit, say that local forecasting committees should be formed to help communities avoid the worst. For more than a week, people in Les Cayes, Hinche, Port-De-Paix, Gonaives, Nippes and Grand’Anse have reported that the roads are impassible, or nearly so, due to the floods.
The rains began in earnest late last month. And since the first week of October, Gonaives, a city of about 100,000 people, has been literally underwater.
The horror of Hurricane Jeanne is still alive in the memories of its residents, and many complain that they see no sign of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that international donors gave after that monster storm in 2004 left some 3,000 people dead — 2,000 in Gonaives alone — with bodies floating for days. One Gonaivian remarked, “Only the good Lord can save us.”
The Haitian government has released funds to send food and beds to the stricken areas, and the United Nations has also offered to help. However, residents here appear to be highly sceptical of the international community’s involvement in Haiti, choosing instead to work together to do the best they can.
“Since the passage of Jeanne, we do not have the means,” a man named Croyance explained. “We are forced to live under tensions. You see the jeeps of MINUSTAH [the U.N. mission in Haiti] and the National Police force, but we believe that only God will not abandon us. We are in his hands.”
When asked for an assessment of the work done by international relief agencies and NGOs in the region, a 28-year-old man who gave his name as Eddy responded, “I, and most people here, believe these groups are only here to line their pockets. Their work is far from being completed or from being of any use to us.”
He added: “All they do is drive around in their jeeps and make their bosses believe that they are doing something useful.”
An elderly man named Rogest lashed out at Haiti’s political class, and recalled that after Jeanne inundated Gonaives, many of the dead remained unburied for days and relief was slow to be distributed to the survivors.
“The inhabitants do not forgive former de facto Prime Minister Gerard Latortue for not even helping his birthplace. The officials elected in 2006 sit in Port-au-Prince speaking French and awaiting the patronage festivals to give some gourds to the priests of the parishes to show how close they are to the people,” he said bitterly.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, 700 homes have been completely destroyed and more than 4,000 seriously damaged, “leaving around 4,000 families in distress and 3,000 persons living in temporary shelters.”
Areas in southern Haiti were also devastated, according to radio reports. There have been 37 confirmed deaths, but some press reports indicate that up to 50 people may have perished in the flooding.
A mounting number of climatologists believe that global warming, caused in large part by the industrialised north, has increased the intensity and frequency of bad weather during the Caribbean’s storm season from Jun. 1 to Nov. 30.
This is a particular problem for Haiti because much of the country’s topsoil is precarious and exposed due to the clear-cutting of forests to make charcoal for cooking and heating water. More than 70 percent of the energy usage in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, is derived from wood and other biomass.
Secretary-General Paul Loulou Chéry of the Confédération des Travailleurs Haitiens (CTH), a national trade union confederation, says the situation is desperate. He has heard from numerous people living in the flooded areas who have faced severe weather for weeks.
Chery said the CTH is trying to provide support to the many trade unionists living in the affected departments, but has few resources to do so. He explained that rising costs of living for the poor exacerbate the crisis. “The people of all these departments need solidarity at once,” Chery said.