After 52 Hurricane Sandy deaths, charities prepare to help Haiti rebuild

Paul Owen talks to three charity workers in Port-au-Prince about the Haitian government's response to its third major disaster in two years

Haiti's government has learned important lessons about responding to natural disasters, say leading charities in the country, but there is still concern about how the Caribbean nation will cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Haiti has been hardest hit by the disaster so far, with at least 52 people killed and more than 200,000 left homeless as the storm passed by the country at the end of last week before it went on to hit the north-eastern United States last night.

There are fears of severe food shortages due to rotting crops, as well as infrastructure problems after roads were flooded and homes destroyed. The country was still coming to terms with the effects of a major earthquake in 2010 and last year's Hurricane Isaac.

Prime minister Laurent Lamothe has said: "It should not be normal that every time it rains, we have a catastrophe throughout the country." The Guardian spoke to three NGO workers in Haiti about the effects of the storm and the nation's prospects of dealing with the crisis.

Prospery Raymond, country manager for Haiti for Christian Aid

Prospery Raymond of Christian Aid
Prospery Raymond of Christian Aid Photograph: public domain

Raymond said the areas most seriously affected by Hurricane Sandy were in the south-east of the country, in the Grand'Anse and Nippes departments.

There I think it is still quite wet. The rivers are going down. In general the departments have put down the [threat level]; it was red, now it is normal. They are trying to repair the roads and bridges that collapsed.

He said the most serious impact of the storm had been on agriculture - the loss of crops and livestock. Christian Aid was going out at the moment to see what the state and other organisations would not be able to provide, "and to provide what is missing". They would be helping repair houses, replace livestock and provide seeds.

Asked about the government's response, Raymond said:

To be honest I think this time they did what they could, because they managed to put more than 20,000 people in temporary shelter, but in total you have 200,000 people that were affected by Sandy. That means there is a huge gap. We think we could provide some support to complement what they are doing.

Asked what the government could do differently, he focused on altering the environment to allow nature to better combat extreme weather events.

Christian Aid [is pushing] the government to take the environment situation more seriously, because if the country had the right trees, the right forests in place, I think that could help. It's really important for them to prioritise this in their future budget, for example. The Ministry of Environment in Haiti has 0.65% of the budget. I don't think it is normal. As a priority sector they need to receive more in order to help Haiti have better cover in terms of trees, and that could help us with all these hurricane storms that will come in here.

Lisa Laumann, Save the Children's country director for Haiti

Lisa Laumann, Save the Children’s country director for Haiti
Lisa Laumann, Save the Children’s country director for Haiti Photograph: public domain

Laumann explained what happened when the storm arrived last week.

The eye of the storm didn't even hit the country. It went through Cuba, and we were at quite a distance from it. So when it came through it was still quite strong, although it was just a tropical storm. [It was] followed by days of intensive, intensive rain; that Thursday and Friday of last week were just … I've hardly seen so much rain in a long time.

It really led to a lot of damage in the country. There's been a substantial amount of damage to roads, a substantial amount of flooding in agricultural areas raising serious concerns about crops, and then of course with the standing water and the flow of water the increased concern about diarrhoea and disease, particularly cholera.

But she was reasonably optimistic about the government's ability to deal with these issues.

What we saw during tropical storm Isaac and I think in tropical storm Sandy as well is a government that is challenged by the recurrent disasters that hit the country but also a government that is increasingly able to deal with this type of disaster. By that I mean that the government has a national system for the management of risks and disaster, and in the last two crises that have hit the country it has taken the lead.

Organisations such as her own had "played a role in preparation and response", but increasingly they were working under government leadership. "I don't want to sound like I think the government has infinite capacity to respond … but I think it's important to recognise that the government does have increasing ability to coordinate and manage disaster preparedness and response here."

Why did so many people die, despite the eye of the storm not hitting Haiti directly?

People die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time or because the infrastructure is not such that it protects them from incidents that occur. I think if the road infrastructure was stronger in this country, if there were better flood control, fewer people would die in emergencies like these.

Laumann was speaking from a high-up area of Port-au-Prince, where there was no standing water, and children were out and off to school. "There certainly has been damage to some buildings, but it looks from here like a fairly normal day."

But in the camps for those made homeless by the storm "it's different":

People lost their few assets that they had. They were flooded out … Life is much more challenging for them. It's hard when you lose most of your possessions or have them destroyed by a storm.

In the south of the country there was a lot of road damage, she said.

The last damage map that I took a look at showed damage in pretty much every department of the southern part of the country, much worse than the north. When you think about the fact that Haiti is already a road-challenged country, that's going to make problems for people who need to move around and for people who need to respond. Bridges have been broken, sections of road have been washed out, there's some land sliding over some of the roads.

Kristie van de Wetering, programme director, Tearfund

Kristie van de Wetering of Tearfund in Haiti
Kristie van de Wetering of Tearfund in Haiti Photograph: public domain

Van de Wetering explained why the situation in Haiti was so serious.

Hurricane Sandy has really tipped the scale of an already fragile situation. We had tremendous amounts of water, tremendous amounts of flooding, severe winds, and we're seeing those effects across the country, with damaged homes, flooded homes, people displaced, crops and gardens destroyed and lives lost: 52 lives were lost, and it's extremely heartbreaking.

She had just got off the phone to a friend whose colleague lost his entire family in a landslide that destroyed their home with his family inside.

Van de Wetering said that since the earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Isaac last year Tearfund had been helping repair homes and "to address some of the agriculture and livelihood issues", especially in the rural mountains. "Now Hurricane Sandy has created even more need and to be sure this response will also be addressing the needs of some of those people who now find themselves in a very difficult situation."

And she explained why Sandy had caused food shortages:

We can look at the context prior to both tropical storm Isaac and Hurricane Sandy with increasing food prices and food insecurity throughout the last several months. With tropical storm Isaac and now Sandy a lot of the crops have been destroyed. There are numerous crops that were ready for harvesting that have now been destroyed. Plantain trees and plantations ripped down, gardens flooded, and so in a country that primarily supports itself agriculturally, this is an extreme hit to the country.

There would now be an increase in food prices and "food insecurity", with families finding it more difficult to harvest or sell their crops, she said. This would make it more difficult for them to send their children to school or repair their homes. Flooding and damaged homes were an immediate problem, "but in the coming months we're going to be looking at a real severe food security situation".

She was less optimistic than Laumann that the government was well-prepared to deal with this disaster, coming as it does so soon after the 2010 earthquake and Isaac in 2011.

The government has been active from the very beginning. The national disaster management system has been mobilised early on, and this is a nationwide system. And the government has also been meeting with international organisations to coordinate the response, and has also allocated an additional $800,000 for initial response actions, so they have been very present and very active, but the reality is that they're stretched in terms of capacity and in terms of ability to respond …

The capacity for the government to respond even prior to these storms was starting to diminish. Funding is drying up for cholera response. So, big concern. There'll need to be a national joint effort with all key stakeholders to respond and to respond swiftly.


Paul Owen

The GuardianTramp

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