By Gladys Mayard
Haitian anthropologist and Field Director for projects described in above post, "The Impending Flood"
Haiti has seen many hurricanes, but the most catastrophic of my lifetime was Hurricane Jeanne of 2004, which devastated the Departments of the Artibonite and the Northwest. In the Artibonite, Gonaives was the city most affected by the storm. All of its more than two hundred thousand inhabitants suffered the effects (direct and indirect) of the landslides and flooding. The number of rural families affected by the hurricane was close to thirteen thousand, including about ten thousand in the low lying areas of Gonaives. Close to half of the three thousand deaths occurred in Gonaives, while other affected communities included Ennery, Terre-Neuve, Gros Morne and Anse Rouge. Port-de-Paix was the city most damaged in the Northwest Department, where about 34 percent of its population was affected, along with Bassin Bleu and Chansolme. In the North Department, the towns of Plaisance and Pilate were also impacted.
I still recall today how this disaster left a bitter taste in the mouths of all Haitians. Everyone was affected, whether from afar or very close. The night of September 24, 2004, we were anxiously waiting for news. Almost all the telephone lines were down. But reports of various families circulated such as “okay, this one is stranded on the roof of their house, watching the water rise up to the roof and up the stairs.” Other families on roofs reported “right now we see our neighbors floating by but can’t do anything.” The saddest part was when someone in Port-au-Prince was talking to someone on a roof, and suddenly the line went dead, and then feelings of panic, as there was no way to know if the connection was lost or the worst had occurred. One woman was reported to have clung to a tree next to her house as she saw her children floating by in the water, and there was nothing she could do. Even if she were to risk descending the tree, the water current was so strong that she could never save them, and thus could only watch helplessly. Because of these stories, Hurricane Jeanne will stay in my memory forever.
Jeanne, the tenth tropical storm of the Caribbean in 2004, began as a depression bringing torrential rain, and triggered massive mudslides in the ravines around the affected cities. On the plain, flooding in the lower watersheds affected several cities in the North, most notably Port-de-Paix and Gonaives. The 17th and 18th of September found these areas completely submerged in water and mud. In all, the storm caused close to three thousand deaths, of which the majority were children. Moreover, it left close to nine hundred persons missing, about twenty-six hundred injured, three thousand homeless, and five thousand homes destroyed. The heavy rainfall released by the storm on the 18th of September over a five-hour period constituted about half the total precipitation that year. Three months after the disaster many families in Gonaives were still living in extreme privation with very limited resources available for survival. The whole capital city of Port-au-Prince was mobilized in marathons to come to the aid of the affected families. Many national and international NGOs provided relief. In fact, the entire world responded with gifts in kind and in cash to send to the area. Clothes, food, and even water were donated. It also should be noted that those families in the region who were less affected by the storm welcomed and provided shelter to many displaced families. By mid-December, the city still found itself in a state of deplorable sanitation. The cleanup effort was not yet complete and many families continued to try and repair their homes with limited means. After the emergency relief activities, funds were made available to restore the homes, but some of the houses were completely buried in mud.
The assistance implemented by local organizations, international and non-governmental agencies continued for many months, although it was never enough to meet all the needs.