Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Destitute Haiti's Lack Of Preparation Makes Disaster Aid Perennial

By Robert Nolin
South Florida's Haitian community has scrambled all week to dispatch disaster relief to desperate compatriots on the storm-stricken island.

That effort is but a stop-gap measure in light of Haiti's perpetual problems, stemming from poverty and years of inept government.

Bottled water and packaged food are no substitute for passable roads, uninterrupted power and potable water.

"When people send milk, food, clothing, how long will it last? In two weeks it will be gone, and there will be starvation. It will be like it never happened," said Mimi Moise, a Pembroke Pines resident whose cousin Stephen Moise is mayor of Gonaives, one of the cities slammed hardest by flooding last week from Hurricane Ike. The realization that such relief is futile in the long run galls Haitian-Americans such as Margaret Armand, a self-described "cultural activist" from Plantation. "It will help now, but it will not help in the long term," she said. "It's frustrating for every sincere and concerned Haitian."

After a relatively quiet couple of years, Haiti has been pummeled this hurricane season by a sequence of storms: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. More than 300 have died, and officials say the toll could run as high as 600.

Compare that with Cuba, where Ike's more powerful passage left fewer than 10 dead.

There, evacuations are highly organized, and schools, convents and government buildings are turned into shelters.

But Haiti has no real emergency plan or shelters. Drainage is poor, and roads are quickly washed out from rainwater off deforested mountains.

"Cuba and Haiti are a great contrast," said Brian Concannon, director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti. "The problem is the Haitian government has been unable to adequately prepare for disasters."

In Haiti, even city and government officials acknowledge that old problems don't get fixed: Bridges and roads remain unrepaired, drainage canals aren't maintained and overflow when it rains, laws designed to preserve forests aren't enforced.

Tertyl Prince, 31, was returning to his hometown of Gonaives on Friday.

"Gonaives will never be the same," he said. "As for fixing the problems, what I don't see is the will from the central government."

Haitian-Americans know emergency preparedness is a root problem yet still send immediate relief, often through individuals, churches or non-governmental orga- nizations.

"The government keeps the money," Armand said.

Miriam Frederick, a Lake Worth missionary, is sending food and money to Gonaives via private means. She too bemoans the causes of Haiti's recurring disasters.

"This is something that happens over and over again," she said.

In fact, money sent home regularlyby expatriate Haitians, apart from times of disaster, sustains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. About $1.5 billion annually has been sent in recent years, Concannon said.

"What keeps Haiti afloat is remittances; Haitians living in the United States, and especially South Florida, sending money back to their families," he said.

The Red Cross already has sent about $250,000 in supplies and expects that number to increase. The United States plans to channel $19.5 million to Haiti.

Dr. Aldy Castor, of Weston, is raising money to send to the Association of Haitian Physicians to pay for disaster kits for storm victims. "In the long run it will not help," Castor concedes.

But the group for which he is president, the Haitian Resource Development Foundation, is working with the island's interior ministry on long-range solutions. The group plans to reinforce certain hospitals in case of a storm, and research ways to purify drinking water.

"We're going to do our part for Haiti to have a better disaster preparation system for next year," he said.

Francois Leconte, of Pembroke Pines, CEO of the nonprofit Minority Development and Empowerment group, said he will hand-deliver money he collected for victims. "That's going to help for a couple of days," he said. Haiti's long-term prospects, he said, depend on help from those who have left the country, if the government will accept it.

"The Haitian government again and again has failed the Haitian people," he said. "The government must be willing to work with us, to work with Haitians from the diaspora, the national organizations that can provide the type of technical assistance that's need- ed."

Leconte, like many Haitian expatriates, allows a guarded optimism that things will improve before another big storm.

"I'm hoping by next year we definitely will be in a different position," he said. "But that's a hope."

Havana Bureau Chief Ray Sanchez and Staff Writer Mike Clary in Haiti contributed to this report.

Robert Nolin can be reached at rnolin@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4525.

Source: Sun-Sentinel.Com

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