Page last updated at 21:55 GMT, Sunday, 7 September 2008 22:55 UK

Eyewitness: Haiti's storm ordeals

Harold Paul (Photo: Christian Aid)
Harold Paul fears the death toll from Hanna may well rise
Haiti has been battered by a series of tropical storms.

Hurricane Hanna caused widespread flooding overnight on Monday in northern parts of Haiti, with a number of deaths in the town of Gonaives.

Harold Paul, Christian Aid's representative in the Caribbean nation, has been sending reports on his charity's relief effort.

We are really worried about Ike. Thousands of people in the north have already lost their homes, as well as crops and livestock. The soil is completely saturated so more rain could easily cause mudslides. It was the mudslides that killed so many people in 2004. Whole towns can be flattened without warning.

The country is not prepared for more rain. Christian Aid partners are doing what they can to warn people of the danger and provide emergency help, but the need is overwhelming.

Residents wading through a flooded Gonaives street
Heavy rain may soon make many roads in Haiti impassable

There are between 60,000 and 70,000 people sheltering in Gonaives. More rain could flood those shelters. So the government is trying to move people to the nearby city Marchand-Dessalines.

The roads are in poor condition, so most people will have to travel the 25km between the two cities on foot. We have to make tough decisions about how we can help because there is not enough money to cover everything that needs to be done.

The most pressing need is to deliver emergency food and water to people who have had to flee their homes.

There are enough shelters and people are going to them, but there is nothing there when they arrive, except protection from the storm.

Food buckets

The shelters need to be supplied with food, water, clothing, toiletries and basic medicines.

Distributions have begun in Port-au-Prince and the south of the county. Humanitarian workers also got into Gonaives when the flood water subsided, but it is still difficult to reach people in isolated areas. Many parts of Haiti do not have good roads and with heavy rain they soon become impassable.

In many areas people are living on steep hillsides in poorly constructed homes that can easily be damaged in high winds and rain

We are also worried about security. The more time that passes when people have no food and no means of getting any, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

Our partners will be delivering food buckets containing spaghetti, rice, matches and cooking oil to families who have fled their homes.

But these distributions have to be done carefully with UN forces on guard because people are very hungry.

We are targeting the most vulnerable communities for food aid - the elderly, children and people living with HIV/Aids.

In Port-au-Prince we have already given cash payments to hundreds of women in slum areas. In capital it is still possible to buy food.

The problem is that people do not have enough money.

In many areas people are living on steep hillsides in poorly constructed homes that can easily be damaged in high winds and rain. They did not have enough money before. Finding extra cash to repair their homes is impossible.


United Nations helicopters finally got up to Gonaives yesterday afternoon to rescue people who had been stranded by the flash flooding.

The immediate need now is for fresh water, food and clothing for those who have had to flee their homes and leave everything behind.

Across the whole country, there are more than 100,000 people in need of emergency aid.

It seems like Ike might not hit Haiti, but we never know and we have to be prepared
I expect that the death toll will rise as rescuers get closer to the areas that have been submerged.

Haitian people don't like staying in shelters, so those who were living in the Gonaives area who have relatives in Port-au-Prince or Cap Haitian have gone to stay with them.

It will be some time before people are able to go back to their homes and repair the damage.

We are now waiting to see whether Hurricanes Ike and Josephine will hit Haiti.

The fact that many parts of the country have already been hit means people are really paying attention to government warnings.

Schools are being identified by the government so that people living in valleys and other vulnerable areas can be evacuated quickly, if need be.

Mobile alerts

One of Christian Aid's partners, Aprosifa, has been going around its neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince with megaphones warning people to listen to the radio and be prepared to move quickly into shelters if their homes are near gullies or on hillsides.

Residents walk along a flooded street in Gonaives, Haiti (04/09/2008)
Many parts of Haiti are still without power following the hurricane

Many of the poorest people have no choice but to build flimsy structures in areas that are very vulnerable when heavy rains come.

It seems like Hurricane Ike might not hit Haiti, but we never know and we have to be prepared.

The government is providing updates every three hours and we are also using mobile phones to alert people living in vulnerable areas to the possible danger.

Haitians have had national mobile coverage for just over two years and this is a big advantage in spreading the word.

Most areas have had no electricity since Monday, though, so only those with generators are able to recharge their phones.

In some areas of the country people have also lost their cows and goats.

The milk from these animals is often vital to a family's survival, so one of our priorities will be helping people to restock once we know the full extent of the damage.


After Hurricane Gustav hit last Tuesday the soil became saturated, so it only takes a few inches more water to cause widespread flooding.

It has been raining all night again and I have been up since 4am listening to the radio and trying to contact our partners in the field.

Hanna was not expected to strike Haiti, so people had no warning to evacuate. By the time the danger was clear, it was too late to flee

We were planning to visit one of our partners on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to assess the damage of Gustav, but because of the driving rain from Hurricane Hanna, which has just hit, the roads are impassable.

I was held up for hours this morning on the way to the office while government workers cleared trees that had fallen onto the road in the night.

It is only a week since Gustav hit and we are still recovering. Now we are deep into another emergency which could well be a lot more serious.

'No way in or out'

So far, 76 people have been killed by Gustav. But I expect the death toll from Hanna to be well into the hundreds.

We are getting reports that people are stranded on their roofs in Gonaives in north-west Haiti, as Hanna caused three metres worth of flooding in a matter of hours.

A man cuts up a tree felled by severe weather from Tropical Storm Hanna in Kenscoff, Haiti
Hanna has caused widespread devastation across northern Haiti

Hanna was not expected to strike Haiti, so people had no warning to evacuate. By the time the danger was clear, it was too late to flee.

As we speak, the government is negotiating with Minustah, the United Nations force, to provide helicopters to airlift people to safety.

There is no way in or out of Gonaives except by air, and people cannot survive on their roofs for very long. Luckily, the cell phones are still working as that is the only way we can contact people in the north.

Gonaives lies at sea level, so it is very vulnerable to water surges. People say you can no longer see the seashore as most of the city has been submerged.

Mudslide risk

In 2004, more than 3,000 people were killed in and around Gonaives, when Tropical Storm Jeanne struck.

Those who could tried to swim towards a building high enough to provide refuge until rescuers could reach them. But there are very few high buildings in the city, most are only one storey.

At the moment, I'm worried that the waters will rise even further in Gonaives in the near future because there are three rivers which converge near the city.

If they burst their banks, which is likely, even more water will pour into the valley.

Haiti is particularly vulnerable to mudslides which can bury whole communities.

Ninety-eight percent of the forests in Haiti have been cut down, leaving little natural defence against mudslides.

Cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for fuel is the last resort for many rural Haitians who have no other income between harvests.

The area around Gonaives is one of the poorest in Haiti, which is itself the poorest country in the western hemisphere, ranking behind several African countries in the UN Human Development Index.

All over the country there are people living in flimsy structures perched on hillsides.

The poorest are forced to set up home in areas which they know are vulnerable because they cannot afford to live in a safer area.

In Port-au-Prince, Christian Aid partners have already begun packaging emergency aid in the form of water purification tablets and medicines.

In the coming days, they will be assessing how best to respond in Gonaives.

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