Storms heighten Haiti's suffering

Cupboards were nearly bare before the winds started whipping, the skies opened, and this seaside city filled like a caldron with thick, brown, smelly muck.

Suffering long ago became normal here, passed down through generations of children who learn that crying does no good.

But the enduring spirit of the people of Gonaives is being tested further by a string of tropical storms and hurricanes whose names Haitians spit out like curses: Fay, Gustav, Hanna, Ike. After four in less than a month, the little that many had has turned to nothing at all.

Humble homes are under water, forcing people onto the roofs. Schools are closed. Hunger is intense. And hurricane season is only halfway through.

The misery is visible in the eyes of Edith Pierre, who cares for six children on her roof in the center of Gonaives, a city of about 300,000 in Haiti's north. She has strung a sheet up to shield them, somewhat, from the piercing sun. The few scraps of clothing she could salvage sit in heaps off to a side. “Now I have nothing,” she said, staring down from the roof at the river of floodwater and then saying again: “Nothing.”

At the home of Daniel Dupiton, who leads the local Red Cross, more than 100 displaced relatives, friends and strangers have moved in – taking up every inch of floor space, as well as the surrounding yard.

“There are official shelters and then there are unofficial ones, like my house,” he said.

Already the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has become even more destitute. People struggled to feed themselves before the hurricanes battered their agricultural lands, killed their livestock and washed away their tiny stores of rice. Now, the country will rely even more on imports, and high food prices across the globe will increase the sting.

“Life was very, very difficult even before this,” said Raphael Chuinard, who is organizing emergency aid distribution in Gonaives for the U.N. World Food Program. “The malnutrition rate was too high. People were resigned to suffer.”

The hurricanes have hit all 10 of Haiti's regions, and by knocking out bridges and washing away roads they have isolated pockets of misery across the countryside. Relief workers and Haitian authorities have reported more than 300 deaths, most from Hanna, and they are just beginning to reach all the trouble spots.

In Gonaives, still largely cut off, sunny skies have helped bring water levels down, but still residents move through the streets with their ankles, their knees and sometimes even their hips submerged in effluent. The hospital is covered with floodwater. So are thousands of homes.

Delivering food is no easy task, dependent on planes, ships and helicopters – including a nearby U.S. Navy vessel. Trucks get stuck in the mud. Once food reaches Gonaives, the crush of desperate people turns handouts into melees. As a solution, trucks, protected by armed Argentine soldiers serving with the U.N. peacekeeping mission, have begun setting out before dawn to distribute high-energy biscuits while most of the city still sleeps.

Gonaives has always been especially vulnerable in hurricanes. The northern port city is in a flood plain, and it fills up fast when rivers break their banks and rain rushes down mountains long stripped of trees. But that same topography gives the place agricultural potential; much of the rice grown in the country is from around here.

Just four years ago Hurricane Jeanne hit Gonaives, killing about 3,000 people and leveling much of the city.

This time, there is talk about whether it makes sense to try to recreate the place again. Authorities discuss shifting some of the population away from the lowest-lying areas.

There is also talk of stronger building codes, so structures are not so easily leveled. The local emergency operations center is flooded, and its coordinator, Yolene Surena, vowed the new one would be on higher ground. “We should have done it before,” she said with a shake of her head.

In Port-au-Prince, Patrick Elie, a presidential adviser preparing a report on whether Haiti ought to reform its army, said the storms made it clearer than ever that the country's biggest enemies were not other armies.

“We need a civil defense system,” he said. “These storms have pointed out the weakness of the Haitian state. Why are we surprised every time a storm hits when we know another one will come?”