As rains arrive, Haitians brace for more disaster

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Mudslides leveled villages and flood waters washed over cities when tropical storm Jeanne struck Haiti in 2004. There was nothing to hold the earth in place — deforestation had wiped out trees and roots across the country's mountains.

As torrential rains begin to fall on this earthquake-ravaged country, Jeanne serves as a not-so-distant reminder that Haiti could be in store for even more suffering this year.

Four days of heavy rains in late February triggered a mudslide that partly destroyed a primary school in Haiti’s second largest city Cap Haitien. Four children were killed and eight seriously injured. In the southwest port of Les Cayes, floodwaters caused 13 deaths, forcing people to take refuge on their roofs as the deluge flooded 60 percent of the city. Houses collapsed, while patients at hospitals had to be moved.

“We face an almost unique set of circumstances generated by a catastrophic quake, a rainy season, and a hurricane season, one after the other in rapid succession,” Ian Logan, head of operations for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Port-au-Prince, said in a press briefing.

The stakes are even higher with the mass displacement of people. An estimated 1.3 million people fled the capital Port-au-Prince after the quake, and many have sought shelter in the Artibonite Valley, the country’s breadbasket. While the flat region is considered seismically safer than Port-au-Prince, its low-lying plain is vulnerable to flooding.

Half of newly displaced Haitians haven't received tents, tarps or rolls of plastic sheeting to use as shelter. And none of that would serve as adequate protection from floods or mudslides — let alone high-velocity hurricane winds.

For now, it’s a race to build or deliver prefabricated earthquake- and hurricane-resistant transitional housing for such a large population.

Colorado State University hurricane forecaster Philip Klotzbach said it's impossible to know how many storms might hit Haiti. Klotzbach and his colleague William Gray predicted in November that there would be 11 to 16 named storms, six to eight hurricanes and three to five major hurricanes during the Atlantic basin's 2010 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November.

Jeanne was a lesson, said Klotzbach: "That storm did a lot of damage in Haiti,” he said. “It doesn’t even take a major hurricane.” The death toll topped 3,000 with almost 2,900 Haitians killed in mud-encrusted Gonaives, most from mudslides and flooding. In 2008, Haiti suffered four hurricanes in succession: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, leaving an estimated 1 million homeless.

“There’s no question we’re facing a calamitous situation,” said Ian Rodgers, a specialist in disaster risk reduction and special adviser to the Save the Children agency. “We only have a few weeks to take critical steps that could reduce the risk of another catastrophe. We’re looking down the barrel of a gun with this hurricane situation.”

With so little time, Rodgers advocates merging two different phases of the disaster response: disaster preparedness activities that are done to prepare communities for a major disaster and the post-disaster emergency humanitarian relief response. Even as food is rushed in to feed the homeless as part of the post-disaster response, prepositioned supplies must also be put into storage for the day — possibly soon — when a major storm hits and local cities are cut off and forced to cope alone.

Rodgers suggests shifting 20 percent of the current relief effort to refocus on disaster risk reduction. Donors also need provide both types of funds now, not later. Such integration might call for more Cash for Work jobs clearing drains, or other activities designed to reduce the risk of floods and mudslides.

Shelter, however, remains a huge problem. It’s twice as costly to building earthquake-and-hurricane proof structures, he says. “It’s very, very expensive.”

In the small southern port city of Jacmel, the local Disaster Preparedness Committee helped residents who were cut off from outside help. The committee provided logistical support to rescue those trapped in collapsed buildings, ferry the injured to medical care and help the newly displaced reach safe areas. That response showed Rodgers that immediate training of local disaster teams, supported by agency specialists, could do a lot in a short time to prepare their communities.

“We are at a fork in the road,” Rodgers said. “The international community has a decision to make — immediately — or we are condemning Haiti to a catastrophic situation.” He added, “We can’t step about. We need to send the best of the best to Haiti to meet these challenges and ward off this disaster. And we have to start now.”