Haiti and the Hurricanes

I am writing from Mirebalais, the place where our organization was born, having just returned from Gonaïves—perhaps the city hit hardest by Hurricane Hanna, which, hard on the heels of Fay and Gustave, drenched the deforested mountains of Haiti and led to massive flooding and mudslides in Northern and Central Haiti. A friend of mine said this morning: “I am 61 years old, born and raised in Hinche. I have never seen it under water.” Gonaïves, with 300,000 souls, is in far worse shape, as you’ll see from the pictures here. The floodwaters in Hinche are dropping, but as of 5 p.m. last night, when we left Gonaïves, the city was still under water. And hurricanes Ike and Josephine are heading this way as I write.

Everyone copied on this note has already heard, most probably directly from PIH, about these storms and their impact on Haiti. I apologize for writing again and for asking my own colleagues and friends to consider sending more resources—we need food, water, clothes, and, especially, cash (which can be converted into all of the above)—so that Zanmi Lasante (ZL), and thus all of us, can do our part to save lives and preserve human dignity.

The need is enormous. After 25 years spent working in Haiti and having grown up in Florida, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as painful as what I just witnessed in Gonaïves—except in that very same city, four years ago. Again, you know that 2004 was an especially brutal year, and those who work with PIH know why: the coup in Haiti and what would become Hurricane Jeanne. Everyone knows that Katrina killed 1,500 in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, but very few outside of our circles know that what was then Tropical Storm Jeanne, which did not even make landfall in Haiti, killed an estimated 2,000 in Gonaïves alone. Logging on this morning from Mirebalais, I see that Ophelia has circulated the essay I wrote about what are, essentially, unnatural disasters.

We’re faced with another round of death and obliteration. Haiti’s naked mountains promise many more unnatural disasters. We know that a massive reforestation program and public works to keep cities safer are what’s needed in the medium and long terms. But there’s a lot we can do in the short term to help out with disaster relief.

None of us regard PIH as a disaster-relief organization. Together, we’ve built PIH—meaning the network of locally directed organizations working in 10 countries—to serve a different cause. We wanted to attack poverty and inequality and bring the fruits of modernity—healthcare, education, etcetera—to people marginalized by adverse social forces. It seemed likely, as reports came in this week, that many other institutions and organizations would be far better able to respond to the after-effects of storms and floods. I’d been told, as the American Airlines flight passed over flooded Gonaïves, that the city was cut off from outside help, but even as I heard this, I knew that our own colleagues were there, volunteering what meager resources we had on hand, and a few hours later I was there too. I was hoping that we’d find that the city was receiving the expert attention of organizations trained to do disaster relief. So imagine my surprise, yesterday, when I discovered that very little in the way of help had reached Gonaïves or the other flooded towns along the coast.

Although it’s not true that Gonaïves cannot be reached by vehicle, it is true that the city center is still under water, and that the road into the city is well and truly flooded. Between Pont Sonde—the only way to the coast, since the major bridge between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves is out, as is that to the north—and the flooded city, we saw not a single first-aid station or proper temporary shelter. We saw, rather, people stranded on the tops of their houses or wading through waist-deep water; we saw thousands in an on-foot exodus south toward Saint-Marc.

We saw a couple of UN tanks rolling through the muddy water over these streets, some Cuban doctors, and two Red Cross vehicles (one of them stuck in mud at least 10 miles from the city), and heard and saw helicopters overhead. But for the most part the streets were full of debris, upside-down vehicles, and dazed residents looking to get out before the next rains. Our friend Deo from Burundi was there and said it reminded him of nothing so much as what he’d seen there, and in Rwanda, in 1994—long lines of people carrying little more than their children, goats, and balancing sodden bags and suitcases on their heads.

A speedy, determined relief effort could save the lives of tens of thousands of Haitians in Gonaïves and all along the flooded coast. The people of that city and others have been stranded without food or water or shelter for three days and it’s simply not true that they cannot be reached. When I called to say as much to friends working with the U.S. government and with disaster-relief organizations based in Port-au-Prince, it became clear that, as of yesterday, there’s not a lot of accurate information leaving Gonaïves, although estimates of hundreds of deaths are not hyperbolic. We had no cell phone coverage there and had to wait until last night to call people in Port-au-Prince. One sympathetic American friend, following up on our distress calls about a lack of relief, told me this morning the retort she’d heard from an expert employed by a UN-affiliated health organization: “Three days without water is nothing. People in Southern Haiti affected by Gustave went ten days without water.”

No human can go ten days without water. Food, perhaps. But not water. So we can expect that the people you see in these photographs, which I took by borrowing the digital camera of a ZL employee from Gonaïves (whose family, like all those you see, lost everything), are at great risk of falling ill with water-borne illnesses. There is also a lot of dead livestock floating down the streets of the city. The stench is overwhelming.

We are familiar with a lot of the Haitian officials charged with responding to this tragedy, which is, agreed, widespread. They showed up in Gonaïves: the district health commissioner, who is from the city and felt lucky to have avoided drowning; the coordinator of the government’s disaster response; nurses and doctors we’ve known over the years. They are doing the best they can with scant supplies. They are tired, thirsty themselves, hoarse-throated. Even Haiti’s newly-appointed Prime Minister, on her first day on the job, showed up this morning in Mirebalais, keeping a promise she made many months ago, long before she was directly involved in politics. She now has to install a new government, perhaps this afternoon, and respond to multiple disasters at once. These people, who are trying to help their fellow Haitians, deserve our help.

This is an appeal to staff, family, friends, and readers. Our co-workers in Haiti are already contributing what services and supplies they can. We will withdraw from Gonaïves (as soon as we get the information we need regarding urgent supplies and as soon as we see more evidence of the mainstream disaster-relief organizations) to Saint-Marc and Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, where we will run the hospitals and health centers with our colleagues in the Ministry of Health; we will help organize food and some clothing for people in Gonaïves and refugees being brought in today from Gonaïves.

Mirebalais is going to be under a good deal of stress. As many of you know, the city’s hospital is not really functioning (in January, local protests about the hospital led to its closing, with patients evacuated to Cange, Boucan Carre, and LaColline). To my knowledge, at least 15,000 are expected to arrive here today—and they will come with nothing. They’ll need water, food, and shelter immediately, and the Mayor of Mirebalais, with whom we met this morning, is looking for dry spaces for them (maybe schools, etc) but there’s no bedding or mosquito nets or cots that I know of.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter is to arrive in Gonaïves tomorrow with water and supplies, but by report last night’s attempt to dock a UN vessel and distribute food was not successful because of “fear of crowd control” (this was from an American friend in Port-au-Prince, so I can’t confirm anything other than what I saw: no widespread distribution of water or food or tents or tarps or anything).

Since ZL is, like all the PIH sister organizations, nimble, we can do a lot by pooling small donations from friends and family members and helping ZL respond in real time to requests from those coordinating the relief efforts. We’ll need to source things like tetanus vaccine (withdrawn from Gonaïves some months ago because of concerns over quality of a certain batch; I don’t know the details), first-aid supplies, oral-rehydration packs, and of course food, cooking oil, and fuel. Again, I know that conventional disaster-relief organizations have greater experience in logistics, and am expecting they’ll have kits prepared for precisely these needs, but as of today these supplies are conspicuous by their absence. Problems with “crowd control,” refugees, and short tempers will only increase as the days go by—especially if more rain falls, as is predicted.

Over 20 years ago, someone explained to me that “wet poverty is worse than dry poverty.” I wasn’t then sure what that meant, but had a pretty good idea of the misery endured by those living through the rainy season in houses that, as the Haitians say, “can fool the sun but not the rain.” I’ve repeated the maxim often enough to merit teasing from my students, but the Haitians find it neither amusing nor over-used. Trying to sleep in wet clothes, on a muddy floor, is high on the list of degradingly uncomfortable activities. It’s better to simply give up and wait until daylight.

Surveying the devastation in Gonaïves, and the wretched population on roofs or wading through the streets or carrying bundles out of the city, we knew that these floods and the lack of effective response are not so much about the unruly forces of nature. Many of you on the Haiti team recall that we’ve long been based in a squatter settlement formed by the floodwaters of the Artibonite; that we spent years rebuilding lean-tos and shacks that didn’t even fool the sun; you’ll remember our co-worker’s mother swept away in a flash flood; or you’ve been part of a team of health workers watching helplessly as an ambulance is swept downstream before their eyes.

The world is waking up to these threats, but Haitians have long been pulling all-nighters as rainstorms keep them up rather than lull them to sleep. Please give generously to ZL’s efforts to intervene immediately, and share this with friends and family who might give even small amounts via the PIH website.

PAUL FARMER is co-founder of Partners in Health and has lived and worked extensively in Haiti.

Your Ad Here



More articles by:
September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?