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Haiti: after the hurricane – rebuilding against the odds

14-05-2009 Feature

Building back better after the four consecutive killer storms that ravaged Haiti in 2008 is a challenge for a country suffering poverty, environmental degradation and donor fatigue.


  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00266    
  Near Gonaïves. Micheline, whose house was destroyed by a hurricane, lives under a tent with her six children.    

ICRC delegate Patrice Brutus grew up in Gonaïves, the coastal town that took the worst pounding from Hurricanes Gustav, Hannah and Ike in summer 2008.

He points at a field on the outskirts of the town. Ten days ago, 250 families whose houses had been destroyed or badly damaged in the September storms were sheltering there in Haitian Red Cross tents. The field is empty.

We discover the families a kilometre away, down an unmade road. Caught in our headlights, men, women and children swarm towards us. They need food and water, but most of all they are desperate for attention. They fear they have been forgotten since the police seized their tents and chased them off their campsite on New Year’s Eve.

“They came to my tent first. I pleaded with them to let me keep it because I’ve got six children, including a new-born baby,” says Micheline Jean. Visibly distraught, she tries to soothe her bawling son. She has been unable to feed him so far today.

Micheline shares her salvaged tent with 10 people. Other families were not so lucky. They huddle together under sheets and clothes tied to wooden poles in their new-found resting place – a stony patch of land with no water, no latrines and not much hope.


In the days before New Year, the authorities closed three of the seven campsites in Gonaïves, Haiti’s third-largest city. They gave no clear explanations. The sites had been set up in November for the tens of thousands who had been sheltering in schools, churches and other public buildings. The decision came as a shock to the residents and to the international agencies that had been providing food, water and medical services in the camps.


  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00262    
  Near Gonaïves. Families whose houses were destroyed by hurricanes live outside the town in makeshift shelters.    

The forcible evictions brought into stark relief the challenges of helping tens of thousands return home in a country of nearly 9 million, where most people live on less than 2 dollars a day. A city of 300,000, Gonaïves has become the focal point in the fight to help Haiti dig itself out of the devastation that left more than 1 billion US dollars in damage, 800 people dead and more than 100,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

The international emergency appeal for Haiti has raised only slightly more than a third of the 106 million dollars the UN asked for. Recovery and reconstruction efforts have faltered. The International Office of Migration has distributed construction kits to the displaced, but they contain barely enough materials to rebuild a small room, let alone a whole house.

“The construction kits are just a gesture to encourage people to return home,” says Daniel Dupiton, president of the Gonaïves Red Cross. “People can’t afford to pay builders, so they sell the kits to buy food.”

Since December, the Red Cross has been training its volunteers in basic carpentry skills so that they can repair people’s homes. So far they have repaired 50 homes, with 50 more on the way.

“After the hurricane, I helped evacuate people from their homes,” says 23-year-old volunteer Kexby Saget, “Now it feels so good to help them return.”

Kexby is one of 200 volunteers who have been learning to make windows and doors, plaster ceilings and lay floors. Alvin Orisme was one of the first to benefit from their new-found skills. He and his wife and 12 children were evicted from a camp on New Year’s Eve, but unlike many of the residents, they had a habitable house to return to.

“If it weren’t for the Red Cross,” he says, “I would be on the streets.”


  ©ICRC/VII/Ron Haviv/v-p-ht-e-00272    
  Gonaïves. Volunteers of the Haitan Red Cross help rebuild houses.    

Dupiton worries that more people will have to leave the shelters before they are ready to return home. Two thousand houses are in urgent need of repair and he is lobbying hard for the local authorities to follow the Red Cross model.

The Red Cross is only repairing homes in areas deemed safe to return to. The authorities have banned people from rebuilding homes located less than 10 metres from the water’s edge, but many people lack the skills or the money to move.

Erick Phillippe and his family would like to leave the overcrowded missionary building where they have been sheltering since the storms swept their riverside home away. He and his wife were trapped in a tree for two days before they were rescued and both still have nightmares that the flood waters will return.

Their fears are justified. Gonaïves, sitting like a bowl on a flat plain between the oceans and mountains, denuded over decades by the felling of trees for charcoal, is highly vulnerable to flooding. When the hurricanes came, the topsoil flooded down from the unprotected slopes, covering the city in 2.5 million cubic metres of mud. In 2004, most of the 3,000 Haitians who lost their lives in tropical storm Jeanne were living in Gonaïves. The international community pledged millions to dredge the rivers and create watershed projects, but little was done.

South of Gonaïves, in Montruis, the authorities rebuilt the river banks after they were destroyed in the September storms, but residents fear that come the next hurricane season they will burst again.

Jocelyne Saint Louis is a 27-year-old widow with three children. Six months after the floods swept her rivers ide home away, they are still living on a dust-blown campsite with 60 others, just metres from the river banks and their former home. The Red Cross has provided tents and looks after the water pump, but food aid ran out in October. Now, the women work at a local restaurant in return for leftovers to feed their families.

Jocelyne crouches in the bare tent where she and her children sleep on clothes spread over stones. “I never thought my life would turn out like this,” she whispers. “I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life in this campsite. I don’t see any way out.”

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