October 29, 2012
“The whole south is under water,” Haitian Prime Minister Lamothe told the AP this weekend. Four days of rain that saw accumulations surpass 20 inches have left over 50 dead and 20 missing throughout Haiti as floods hit the South and West departments especially hard. According to the most recent update from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 52 are reported dead, with 20 and 18 in the West and South departments, respectively. OCHA notes that over 20,000 were evacuated and 90 camps damaged.
With some 370,000 Haitians still living in camps with nothing but tattered tarps to protect themselves, the rains were especially damaging. Kristen and Wawa Chege of the Mennonite Central Committee describe the situation:
whole camps flooded as streams emerged between tents, shelters fell under the weight of sitting water, dirt floors turned to mud, and precious possessions were ruined. Efforts to raise mattresses off the ground using cinder blocks, and string clothes from wires inside their tent made little difference as the rain poured in through holes in the tent, or seeped in below the walls. As one man succinctly put it, “everything is wet”.
In August, tropical storm Isaac inflicted massive damage to the agricultural sector in Haiti, resulting in an estimated $242 of damages. As food prices have risen, protests against the high cost of living and against the Martelly government have proliferated. The passing of hurricane Sandy will only exacerbate the problems. As Susan Ferreira reports for Reuters:
“Most of the agricultural crops that were left from Hurricane Isaac were destroyed during Sandy,” he said, “so food security will be an issue.”
A rise in food prices in Haiti triggered violent demonstrations and political instability in April 2008. Jean Debalio Jean-Jacques, the Ministry of Agriculture’s director for the southern department, said he worried that the massive crop loss “could aggravate the situation.”
“The storm took everything away,” said Jean-Jacques. “Everything the peasants had in reserve – corn, tubers – all of it was devastated. Some people had already prepared their fields for winter crops and those were devastated.”
In Abricots on Haiti’s southwestern tip, the community was still recovering from the effects of 2010’s Hurricane Tomas and a recent dry spell when Sandy hit.
“We’ll have famine in the coming days,” said Abricots Mayor Kechner Toussaint. “It’s an agricultural disaster.”
Ferreira adds that humanitarian workers are concerned because stocks of supplies have not been replenished since tropical storm Isaac.
As occurred following Isaac, the most deadly aspect of Sandy could be the resulting increase in cholera cases that will occur in the weeks ahead. Nearly 90 people died from cholera in the month following Isaac, as infection rates greatly increased due to the rain. Since the beginning of the epidemic in October 2010, some 7,600 have died and nearly 600,000 have fallen ill.
According to Dr. Juan Carlos Gustavo Alonso of the Pan American Health Organization, aid organizations are already seeing a spike in cholera cases, especially in the west department where most of the remaining IDPs are located. Over 80 cases have been reported just from the IDP camps in the capital.
Despite overwhelming evidence that United Nations troops were responsible for cholera’s introduction, two years have passed without the UN taking responsibility.
Disaster Risk Reduction
Although the full extent of the damage from Sandy has yet to be fully evaluated, the damage will likely be at least as great as that from Isaac. Prime Minister Lamothe said that the Haitian government would be issuing a plea for disaster aid in the coming days. The devastation brought on by Sandy and Isaac highlights the need for greater disaster risk reduction programs to ensure Haiti is not so susceptible to natural disasters.
The Haiti Reconstruction Fund, which has been the largest single recipient of donor contributions, has two projects which focus on disaster risk reduction in the south department, one of the hardest hit areas. While the UN’s $8 million dollar program has mostly been completed, the Inter-American Development Bank’s $14 million, 5-year project has yet to get off the ground. The project targets disaster mitigation works in Les Cayes and Camp Perrin. Both those communities were hit hard by flooding last week from Sandy.
While it will be important to react to the current disaster to ensure cholera’s spread is mitigated, IDPs receive the support they need, and the agricultural sector is strengthened, the hurricane also shines a light on Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the need for greater preparation and prevention measures.