March 24, 2009
Living in a Sea of Mud, and Drowning in Dread
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
GONAÏVES, Haiti — Even now, well before hurricane season, Jean Hubert tries to tamp down the panic that wells up in his chest whenever dark clouds mass overhead.
His unease multiplies if even stray raindrops splatter through his corrugated roof. Its seemingly robust support boards snapped like matchsticks in the cascading floodwaters last year, puncturing random holes in the flimsy tin.
“I live with one foot out the door,” explains Mr. Hubert, a 35-year-old high school teacher ready to run for the hills at the slightest suggestion of a storm.
Outside his four-room, cinder block shanty, the havoc visited across this city in central Haiti by a string of hurricanes six months ago remains readily apparent.
Mr. Hubert’s home now sits four or five feet below the narrow street. The mud that choked every house, excavated by hand and carted into the road, has hardened into an uneven chain of mounds, solid like concrete. Pedestrians negotiating its choppy surface look down on the tin roofs while trampling household items jutting out of the dirt — here a woman’s bright red pump, there a turquoise plastic comb.
The fear of the next big storm infects the whole town. Everyone knows that the rains should start in April, and that by June hurricanes can begin to form out in the Atlantic — the deadly season lasting until November. Mr. Hubert complains that the city has no evacuation plan, that the same chaos that left him sitting on a neighbor’s roof the last time for three days, his five children crying from hunger, could well unspool all over again like a recurring nightmare.
City Hall, basically a two-story house on the main square, lacks the bustle one might expect in a city still recuperating from storms that hit like a battering ram. Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike — all but the first one were hurricanes — landed within the space of a month last August and September. It was Hanna that really pummeled Gonaïves, the fourth largest city in Haiti, with 300,000 inhabitants.
No other city in Haiti absorbed so much punishment. More than 30 inches of rain fell overnight. The deforested hills, less than 2 percent of them covered by trees, sent the spill-off crashing down into La Quinte River, the wall of water and mud eventually cresting at 15 feet above its banks.
By the time it receded from the city streets, the flood had killed 466 inhabitants; another 235 just disappeared and are presumed dead. Of the city’s 33,000 buildings, 5,441 collapsed and some 22,300 others were damaged. Nationally, damages came to a total of $900 million, or nearly 15 percent of the gross domestic product.
“All it takes is one cloud, and everyone asks me when they will be evacuated,” groused the deputy mayor, Jean-François Adolphe, when asked about the mood here. The City Council tried to develop a plan, he said, but readily admitted it was basically fruitless. The city does not have a place to shelter anyone, not to mention the means to ferry its inhabitants to higher ground.
Mr. Adolphe rated the chances of a hurricane hitting this year at 30 percent, and flatly denied a rumor that the mayor and his two deputies had bought houses in the hills. He noted brightly that the national toll from the 2008 storms was under 800 dead, down from 3,000 when Hurricane Jeanne struck in 2004, which meant officials must be doing something right.
The main hangover is the mud. Estimates of just how much mud slithered into Gonaïves range up to a square mile filled with a bit more than three feet of goop.
Mr. Adolphe thought the city had hit on a happy solution to getting rid of it — neighborhood teams paid for the work as they moved from one quarter to the next. But, he said, residents cleaned their own streets and shrugged off other areas, appearing only every two weeks to collect a small salary. “They are not really interested in doing community work,” he said.
For their part, residents complain bitterly that the government is missing in action. They reserve praise for Venezuela alone. It paid for the new Simón Bolívar power plant, which provides the city with some 16 hours of electricity daily.
The United Nations also hired 21,000 people to build terraces in the hills around the city, paying them $2 cash and $3 in food for each day worked. But less than 2 percent of what needs to be done to shore up the watershed has been completed, said Alex Ceus, the director of the terracing program.
“The little that has been done is insufficient to protect the city,” he said. On the hill next to the fresh terraces, experienced hands point out the smooth bumps of previous efforts. The force of water spilled by Hurricane Hanna erased terraces too.
Right after the floods, the United Nations organized a worldwide appeal for $127 million for recovery efforts, but only about half has been donated.
Each storm seems to compound the previous lashing. Right outside the southern approach to Gonaïves, a sprawling lake several miles across now covers a once arid plain. Water laps against the windowsills of abandoned houses, their curtains flapping in the stiff breeze.
The water hides a raised highway that was being built because the same area flooded in 2004. Most Haitian roads are abysmal moonscapes, but the 25-minute detour that National Route 1 now takes around the lake is a particularly rough, unpaved road, with muscular buses barreling along giving no quarter to smaller vehicles.
At first, people forced from their homes thought the lake might at least provide fish to eat. But after a couple of men drowned when their skiff capsized in the strong winds, the nearby residents, still living in tents, said they no longer ventured near the water.
Drowning is not a fear only by the lake.
In the downtown communal market, Pierre Exante, a mattress seller, grimaced as his eyes darted over the oozing cesspool of black water and garbage abutting his store, the foul stench and worse reputation keeping customers away. Four people have drowned in it, Mr. Exante said.
Not that the rest of the market is very busy. One stall owner said she got more beggars than customers — the storm killed the local economy. Residents say endless such problems fill their days and nights with dread.
Nicole J. Clervius is the local director for Fonkoze, a microcredit lender that is helping businesses struggle back to life. “People cannot sleep, they are always on alert,” she said. “It’s like they are always waiting for something to come.”