Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Eyewitness: Haiti's storm ordeals

Harold Paul fears the death toll from Hanna may be well into the hundreds

Haiti has been battered by a second tropical storm, less than a week after Hurricane Gustav killed more than 70 people there.

Hurricane Hanna caused widespread flooding overnight on Monday in northern parts of Haiti, where police say at least 10 people were killed in the town of Gonaives.

Harold Paul, Christian Aid's representative in the Caribbean nation, has been organising the charity's relief effort.

After Hurricane Gustav hit last Tuesday the soil became saturated, so it only takes a few inches more water to cause widespread flooding.

It has been raining all night again and I have been up since 4am listening to the radio and trying to contact our partners in the field.

We were planning to visit one of our partners on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to assess the damage of Gustav, but because of the driving rain from Hurricane Hanna, which has just hit, the roads are impassable.

I was held up for hours this morning on the way to the office while government workers cleared trees that had fallen onto the road in the night.

It is only a week since Gustav hit and we are still recovering. Now we are deep into another emergency which could well be a lot more serious.

'No way in or out'

So far, 76 people have been killed by Gustav. But I expect the death toll from Hanna to be well into the hundreds.

We are getting reports that people are stranded on their roofs in Gonaives in north-west Haiti, as Hanna caused three metres worth of flooding in a matter of hours.
A man cuts up a tree felled by severe weather from Tropical Storm Hanna in Kenscoff, Haiti

Hanna has caused widespread devastation across northern Haiti

Hanna was not expected to strike Haiti, so people had no warning to evacuate. By the time the danger was clear, it was too late to flee.

As we speak, the government is negotiating with Minustah, the United Nations force, to provide helicopters to airlift people to safety.

There is no way in or out of Gonaives except by air, and people cannot survive on their roofs for very long. Luckily, the cell phones are still working as that is the only way we can contact people in the north.

Gonaives lies at sea level, so it is very vulnerable to water surges. People say you can no longer see the seashore as most of the city has been submerged.

Mudslide risk

In 2004, more than 3,000 people were killed in and around Gonaives, when Tropical Storm Jeanne struck.

Those who could tried to swim towards a building high enough to provide refuge until rescuers could reach them. But there are very few high buildings in the city, most are only one storey.

At the moment, I'm worried that the waters will rise even further in Gonaives in the near future because there are three rivers which converge near the city.

If they burst their banks, which is likely, even more water will pour into the valley.

Haiti is particularly vulnerable to mudslides which can bury whole communities.

Ninety-eight percent of the forests in Haiti have been cut down, leaving little natural defence against mudslides.

Cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for fuel is the last resort for many rural Haitians who have no other income between harvests.

The area around Gonaives is one of the poorest in Haiti, which is itself the poorest country in the western hemisphere, ranking behind several African countries in the UN Human Development Index.

All over the country there are people living in flimsy structures perched on hillsides.

The poorest are forced to set up home in areas which they know are vulnerable because they cannot afford to live in a safer area.

In Port-au-Prince, Christian Aid partners have already begun packaging emergency aid in the form of water purification tablets and medicines.

In the coming days, they will be assessing how best to respond in Gonaives.

Source: BBC

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