CHW wading through flood waters
A Zanmi Lasante health worker wades through floodwaters to find missing HIV patients.

Torrential rains from Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna swept through Haiti earlier this week, leaving behind dangerous flood waters and devastated communities.

”The situation is very dire and catastrophic and sad and frustrating,” writes Loune Viaud of Zanmi Lasante (ZL), PIH’s partner organization in Haiti. She estimates that around 10,000 people have been displaced due to floodwaters in the Artibonite Valley, where PIH recently expanded operations to six facilities earlier this year.

Full reports of the one-two punch left by both storms to the battered island of Dominica are currently hard to find, as news and media outlets had little time to focus attention from Gustav before Hanna roared through; and many instead turned their attention to Hanna’s path towards southern Florida.

Communications with Viaud and other PIH/ZL staff have painted a stark picture of desperation and destruction. Some patients and health workers were stranded on the roof of a submerged hospital. One doctor was forced to take refuge on the roof of his house, calling for ZL to help evacuate his patients.

On Wednesday morning, members of Zanmi Lasante’s team trudged through swollen rivers and muddy embankments in search of patients living in the flooded areas. About 45 patients in ZL’s HIV program had homes underwater—fortunately, all have been accounted for, and are housed with neighbors and friends living on higher ground. But ZL fears that the situation may deteriorate even further, as Tropical Storm Ike approaches Haiti.

 Woman helping to build a new health clinic in Lebakeng
 Flooded houses in the Artibonite Valley

Although these storms have contributed to the current disaster in Haiti, the rampant poverty and lack of infrastructure throughout the region have also played a role in both these hurricanes, and past storms. Unlike New Orleans, there are no levees to hold back the water in many of the low-lying communities served by ZL. Mud huts without solid foundations, walls, or roofs are easily swept away; unpaved streets quickly degrade into muddy holes, hampering evacuation and relief efforts. Hospitals and health clinics lacked the infrastructure to safely evacuate patients, and ZL staff are worried about the looming public health problems in the wake of the storms—the spread of water-borne illness, access to clean water, malaria. The six facilities partnered with ZL in the Artibonite region are now frantically preparing to handle a flood of patients in the coming months.

[published September 2008]