GRAN PLAS, Haiti, Sept. 11, 2008 — Gran Plas is empty, swept away by the floods that followed Hurricane Ike.

Three storms had already ravaged Haiti before Ike brought heavy rains again to swollen rivers and saturated ground on Saturday. Last week, Hanna caused terrible flooding in Hinche, the capital of Haiti's Central Department. Zanmi Lasante’s staff has been working around the clock alongside local officials and other NGOs to provide shelter, food, water, and medical care in the upper plateau. More than 2000 people have been sheltered temporarily in Hinche. 

The scope of this un-natural disaster and of the inadequate humanitarian response in the hardest-hit areas in the Artibonite Valley, literally downstream from the Central Plateau, is finally becoming recognized.  Estimates of deaths in the past month range from 500 to 1000 and perhaps as many as one million people have been left homeless.

The lower plateau had largely been spared of damage from the first three hurricanes to hit Haiti in recent weeks.  But Ike proved too much.

Sometime around 3 am on Sunday morning, September 7, the bridge connecting Mirebalais to St. Marc, Gonaïves and the rest of the Artibonite Valley washed out.  This not only separated the city of Mirebalais from its hospital on the other side of the river, but it cut the last road connecting the Artibonite with Port-au-Prince. It seems likely that shipping containers from the Nepalese Battalion UN base – near Gran Plas – were swept downstream by the waters and contributed to the bridge collapse.  Haitian President René Préval called Monday for a “flood of helicopters” to help move aid from the capital to where it is needed most. 

The people of Mirebalais have been forced to cross the Latombe River in canoes.  Local officials have informed us that 32 homes were completely destroyed near the bridge, with another 38 homes flooded.  We know of another 61 homes destroyed in the area but this assessment is incomplete.

Zanmi Lasante is helping coordinate emergency shelter for over 300 people in Mirebalais with the local government, the Ministry of Public Health and Population, the Haitian Red Cross, World Vision, and the Rotary Club.  These homeless include 45 children under the age of five.  We are providing food, water, shelter, and medical care. 

Displaced and vulnerable people continue to arrive seeking assistance several days after the worst flooding.  Which brings us again to Gran Plas, up stream from Mirebalais along the same Latombe River that destroyed the bridge.

Yesterday, a number of people arrived from Gran Plas, bringing with them stories of the floods that destroyed their homes and their crops.  Most had not eaten in several days.  The local magistrate from Gran Plas and I went to survey the damage earlier today.  While the area was small when compared to a large city like Gonaïves, the devastation was complete. It was not possible on a first assessment to know how many homes were lost.  Some were completely swept away. Others were wracked together, pushed into the trees.

Recovery from these floods will take a long time.  But perhaps what was most troubling about visiting Gran Plas today was witnessing the lost crops.  In a region where subsistence farming is the often the only means of survival and where food insecurity and malnutrition are chronic problems, the loss of crops will be a problem for months to come. 

A peasant farmer we met in Gran Plas told us, “I had very little before and now I have nothing.  My house was spared, but my garden is completely destroyed.  The millet was not ready to be cut and the corn was not ripe.  Now its all gone, along with everything else that was in the ground.”

There are hundreds of places like Gran Plas in Haiti.  Many still without assistance of any kind.