Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold?

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Friday, 24 August 2012 12:16

The latest news from the Associated Press suggests Tropical Storm Isaac may not reach hurricane strength before hitting Haiti:

Tropical Storm Isaac strengthened slightly as it spun toward the Dominican Republic and vulnerable Haiti on Friday, threatening to bring punishing rains but unlikely to gain enough steam to strike as a hurricane.

Forecasters now expect the storm to stay below hurricane force until it's in the Gulf of Mexico, staying to the west of Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention starts on Monday, though there is still an outside chance it could hit there.

In Haiti, the government and international aid groups announced plans to evacuate several thousand people from one of the settlement camps that sprang up in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

Isaac was expected to dump eight to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) of rain on the island of Hispaniola that is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"That kind of rain is going to cause some life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the Hurricane Center in Miami.

AP’s Trenton Daniel goes on to describe the Haitian government’s emergency measures and the reactions that some Haitians had to them:

In flood-prone Haiti, where the storm's eye is likely to blow ashore late Friday, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe urged people to avoid crossing rivers, to tape their windows, and to stay calm, saying "panic creates more problems."

Lamothe and other Haitian officials said the government had set aside about $50,000 in emergency funds and had buses and 32 boats on standby for evacuations.

But among many Haitians, the notion of disaster preparedness in a country where most people get by on about $2 a day was met with a shrug.

"We don't have houses that can bear a hurricane," said Jeanette Lauredan, who lives in a tent camp in the crowded Delmas district of Port-au-Prince.

About 400,000 people remain in settlement camps comprised of shacks and tarps in the wake of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.

While much less loss of life and destruction may result with Isaac hitting Haiti as a tropical storm, rather than a hurricane, the toll is still likely to be devastating – in part because cholera infections are likely to spike, as we noted yesterday. It is in large part the lack of adequate shelter that has been provided to Haiti’s displaced earthquake survivors that this new cholera upsurge may result. Partners in Health’s Cate Oswald writes from Haiti that:

“We’re ensuring that each hospital has enough cholera treatment materials on hand and that we have identified alternative locations within our hospitals for any cholera treatment areas still under tents -- in case of heavy rains and wind -- and in the case that we start to see a surge in the number of cholera cases. We have staff on hand at all facilities, as always, ready to respond to any additional needs. The Red Cross is working hard with the Haitian government to get people still living in tent camps to emergency shelters.”

Oxfam Country Director Andrew Pugh said in a press release today, "Nothing short of a miracle can keep people safe from this kind of storm when their only shelter is a tent. Haiti's disaster preparedness and response capacities have improved since the earthquake, but much remains to be done to help the poorest people cope with hurricane-strength threats."

But this has been the case for the past two-and-a-half years. Helping people cope, and prepare for “hurricane-strength threats” is what the international community, NGO’s, and the Haitian government should have been doing ever since the earthquake. Yet the international community and many NGO’s have scaled back efforts to fight cholera during the dry seasons both years since the outbreak began. And Haiti is threatened by hurricanes every year, during a hurricane season that lasts from June – November, and it often gets hit hard. Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 killed some 3,000 people in Haiti. Three years later, as Haiti struggled to obtain debt cancellation from its biggest lenders, the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and other institutions, we noted that the country was still trying to recover from Jeanne’s impact. The case we made then for Haiti’s urgent need for funds – from debt cancellation - to cope with the regular deluge from tropical storms and hurricanes, are even more relevant for why Haiti needs international support today:

Funds made available through debt cancellation would also give Haiti the opportunity to address urgent humanitarian needs in the wake of recent natural disasters. Over 57 people died as a result of Tropical Storm Noel [in 2007], and the storm caused floods and landslides. Some of the poorest urban areas, including Cité-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, were among the worst hit.

Prior to Noel, Haiti had already been hit by Hurricane Dean in August, and then wracked by weeks of flooding, with over 700 homes destroyed and more than 4,000 seriously damaged, "leaving around 4,000 families in distress and 3,000 persons living in temporary shelters," according to the International Organization for Migration.

A New York Times editorial today laments this failure to adequately help Haiti prepare for the inevitable, almost yearly “unnatural disaster”:

Government officials and aid groups on Thursday had little to offer the most vulnerable Haitians as time ran out, besides asking people to remain calm as they braced for the storm’s impact. The 390,000 people whose homes are plastic sheets and sticks, or battered tents, or quake-damaged houses long ago condemned as too dangerous to occupy and impossible to repair, could not have been comforted. The slogan “Build back better” — so often repeated as the principle guiding the immense international aid and reconstruction effort — must seem like a cruel joke.

The editorial laments the still insufficient international response to Haiti’s many ongoing and still urgent needs:

The United Nations humanitarian agency reported recently that a $231 million program by the United Nations and international donors to meet shelter, sanitation, food and other emergency needs in 2012 had raised $47 million by July 24, so the budget was cut to $128 million. At the end of July, it still needed $81 million to get to the end of the year. While progress has been made, the lack of basic, permanent housing remains the greatest failure in postquake Haiti. Now, as another potential disaster looms, many of the displaced may be victims again.

Tags: camps | cholera | flooding | hurricane season | idps