Recent storms add to tragedy in Haiti

By Evan Lyon, PIH Physician, Haiti

Working for the past decade in Haiti has required a constant eye to the weather – to the political climate inside Haiti, toward the shifting tides of international politics and global finance, and, of course, a nervous eye to the Atlantic Ocean during hurricane season. 

 
 

A major bridge in Mirebalais was destroyed in the floods
 

I flew into Port-au-Prince soon after Hurricane Ike struck, the fourth named storm to hit the island in less than three weeks.  News reports were terrifying; perhaps a thousand dead and over a million left homeless. 

Starting up the road to Mirebalais and Hinche in the Central Plateau of Haiti, where PIH’s partner organization Zanmi Lasante (ZL) supports several hospitals, our driver told me what he’d seen—bridges washed away in Mirebalais, and many homes destroyed.  But what clearly shocked him was the flooding in Hinche, which is in an upper region of the Central Plateau.  He had lived his whole life there, and in his 40 years there had never been flooding near Hinche. After the recent storms, many parts were submerged in water and mud. This is literally an unprecedented disaster.

Arriving in Mirebalais after dark, we visited a shelter housing about 300 people.  I heard the same story, over and over, “The water rose so fast.  We lost everything.  Our crops are ruined.” 

 
 

People fleeing down a flooded road from Gonaïves towards Saint Marc
 

 
 

4-day-old Juliapson Vilicius and his mother at a shelter

Heading to the coast with ZL staff a few days later, we saw the devastated coastal city of Gonaïves and the broad, agriculturally-vital Artibonite valley, extending to Saint Marc in the south. Nearly a week after the last rains, and much of this region was still underwater.

Through the past years of caring for poor people, working in solidarity with the sick and the suffering, in rural and urban places, from mountain-top mobile clinics to the dense confines of prison, I have never felt such intense and deep misery.  The air was charged by trauma and seemed ready to explode. Hundreds were still streaming out of Gonaïves on foot through waist-deep water.  Many ended up in Saint Marc, where ZL now helps administer and staff the main public hospital.

In one of the shelters in Saint Marc, I met someone who has become, for me, the human face of this unnatural disaster: 4-day-old Juliapson Vilicius.  His mother and three other children were forced to leave Gonaïves after their home was destroyed.  During the evacuation, his mother went into labor, and Juliapson was born on the side of the road. He is one of 10 infants in this shelter, one of many hundreds of thousands of people around the country left homeless by the floods. All face an uncertain future, and more bad weather is looming in the horizon—from political, economic and meteorological storms. 

[posted October 2008]

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