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Haiti Braces for Another Hurricane Season

By Robyn Fieser

Last summer, Haiti was slammed by not one, but four storms that overwhelmed many parts of the island nation. The northern port city, Gonaives, was one of the country's hardest-hit areas.

CRS staff and residents clean up

In Gonaives, Haiti, residents and CRS staff pitch in to clean up the Sisters of Saint Joseph Apparition school. Photo by Alix Innocent/CRS

As the city braces for another hurricane season, I checked in with Catholic Relief Services staff for an update on the recovery effort: What still needs attention?

The memories of last year's storms are still fresh on CRS workers' minds.

"We're gearing up for the rainy season now—hurricanes in August—and there is definitely a sense of dread," says Emergency Advisor Delphine Mulley, reporting from Gonaives. "Nobody knows what to expect and the city is not ready for another disaster."

Days of rain from the four back-to-back late-summer storms in 2008 submerged most of the flood-prone city of about 350,000. Hundreds of families were trapped in their homes. Others were forced onto rooftops. When the floodwaters receded, they left streets and even homes buried in mud. Estimates were that more than 3.2 million cubic yards of mud, about enough to fill 320,000 dump trucks, clogged the city.

Schools—which were converted to temporary shelters—and businesses were closed for months. As thousands struggled to survive, CRS provided much-needed food and shelter to the town's most vulnerable.

CRS distributed kits to families so they could repair their damaged homes. We also helped about 400 families whose homes were destroyed to find homes and pay rent on new houses for a year.

Cleanup Begins

In November, after people's immediate needs were met, mud became the priority, says Mulley. "People leaving shelters couldn't move back into their homes because of the mud, and schools couldn't reopen." Through a cash-for-work program, CRS paid residents to help dig the city out from under the mess.

All told, about 300 workers—almost half of them women—teamed up over 20 days. Armed with 8 backhoes and more than 40 wheelbarrows, the workers hauled upward of 52,000 cubic yards of mud out of their neighborhoods in Gonaives and nearby Assifa, far exceeding expectations.

"It was all kind of frenetic," says Mulley. "All these other nonprofit organizations, both local and international, saw us working and it really kicked everyone into gear."

Mulley never saw Gonaives completely buried in mud. But she says comparing the before and after photos "makes your jaw drop."

"It's amazing how much life there is back in Gonaives," says Mulley.

With the city's bustling social life restored, its major roads repaired and its economy recovering, residents are no longer relying on emergency food, says Alix Innocent, a CRS staffer in Gonaives.

The bishop's house in Gonaives

Several feet of mud clog the compound of the bishop's house in Gonaives. This two-story structure served as a haven for as many as 600 people when Hurricane Ike flooded the city. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

But the future is still murky.

The Mud Remains

"The public health issue remains the same in spite of our efforts to remove mud and clean up community areas. To completely rid the city of mud, it would take about two years working on a daily basis with at least 15 backhoe loaders and 100 trucks to transport it to the dumpsite," says Innocent.

As it is, what mud has been cleared is piled in mounds at dumpsites outside of the city. And the conditions that make Gonaives so susceptible to floods have not been addressed.

Gonaives is built on a floodplain, one of the biggest watersheds in Haiti. Floodwater runs down bare hills, which, like much of Haiti, are stripped of their protective forest cover. The hills surround the city on all sides. Insufficient drainage means the water stagnates in city streets.

Bill Canny, Catholic Relief Services' country representative in Haiti, says drains have not been sufficiently cleaned in preparation for the upcoming storm season. Meanwhile, not enough trees have been planted in nearby mountains to prevent another deluge of water and mud.

"Unfortunately, organizations including CRS ran out of cash," says Canny. "So recovery efforts have been, overall, underfunded and the results have been less than desired."

Continuing Efforts

Volunteers, led by the bishop of Gonaives and various organizations of the Catholic Church, are now heading the charge in the continued cleanup of Gonaives, Canny says.

Innocent, a Gonaives native, recently conducted focus groups with more than 100 city residents to better understand their needs. He found that deforestation and the need for watershed restoration are the most pressing concerns people have as they brace for this hurricane season.

For now, CRS continues to work with UNICEF and Haiti's Ministry of Education to provide uniforms and books for schoolchildren. The community HIV and AIDS program is developing contingency plans based on last year's experience to make sure service can continue during natural disasters. Emergency relief supplies are already in place in warehouses in Port-au-Prince and Miami. Finally, CRS staff continues to attend a wide range of meetings throughout the country in preparation for the upcoming hurricane season.

"We're trying to help the population of Gonaives move forward from this crisis and organize in its response to emergencies," Innocent says.

Robyn Fieser is CRS' regional information officer for Latin America and the Caribbean based in Guatemala.

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