Is Haiti Ready for Hurricane Season?

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

A man walks across a waterlogged makeshift tent camp after heavy rains in Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A group of women file one by one through an unpaved road, balancing baskets filled with grasslike plants atop their heads. They ascend the slopes of the rolling mountains that cradle the city of Gonaïves and its suburbs in northern Haiti. Maria Charles, 42, looks down at the town of Bayonnais, where she lives, and points to a compound with a yard and a modest concrete building. "That's where we had to stay when the hurricane came," says Charles, remembering the last bad storm season. "We stayed in the church for four days with no food, no water, just waiting. The hurricane almost swallowed us whole."

Charles adds that the hurricanes of 2008 wiped out her home and fields. An estimated 800 Haitians died, and 60% of the country's harvest was destroyed. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne led to more than 3,000 deaths — 2,800 in the Gonaïves area alone. Severe floods and mudslides washed away fragile infrastructure precisely because of Gonaïves' bowllike geographical location and years of deforestation that made the hills melt with the huge rains. Without trees acting as sponges to absorb the moisture, the water rushes down mountains in free fall, collecting crops, houses and people. Before the Jan. 12 earthquake, hurricanes were the disaster that Haiti knew it would face again and again. "Only God knows how Gonaïves will survive — how we will survive," says Charles, peering into the future.

Indeed, meteorologists predict this year's hurricane season to be an active one. That's why Charles and the women of Bayonnais have walked up the mountains with plants on their heads. The residents are terracing the slopes with stone ramps and planting crops and vegetation to reinforce the barriers. Says Drew Kutschenreuter, who heads the Gonaïves office of the International Organizations for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian group: "Everything stays on the hill. That's what we want."

Kutschenreuter admits that the 17-mile-long project, which is funded by USAID, won't come close to reforesting the hills in time and doesn't stretch far enough to provide ample protection for the community. Residents say they will have to retreat to the community church for protection again this year. The Haitian government's Department of Civil Protection identified 16 hurricane shelters, mostly schools and churches, for the city of Gonaïves, which has a population upwards of 200,000, swollen with some of the 600,000 people who fled the capital of Port-au-Prince for the provinces after the January earthquake. "We can only be prepared for the most vulnerable populations, like the elderly, the handicapped and pregnant women," says Gerada Elise, coordinator for the Civil Protection Department in Gonaïves.

At least Gonaïves has a structure entirely intended for use as a hurricane shelter. The shelter, built by IOM, can hold 500 people and has indoor plumbing, complete with separate latrines and shower facilities. In contrast, Port-au-Prince has no such shelter and no visible preparations for the coming storms. Makeshift tents cloak the city's gritty landscape.

The Haitian government has yet to come up with a unified contingency plan for the hurricane season, says Pascale Lefrançois, United Nations humanitarian-affairs officer, who concentrates on planning for disasters. "The Haitian government needs to take the lead on all of this," says Lefrançois. "We have to know what's going." Some 900 buildings that could be used as hurricane shelters were identified before the Jan. 12 earthquake, but Lefrançois says they now must be reassessed to make sure they are still standing and habitable. Lefrançois says such building reassessments have not started.

"I will never say we will be entirely ready," says Sarah Muscroft, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti. "But if you can minimize the risk, that's the best way you can prepare." At the very least, she says, evacuation procedures must be drawn up.

Some good news is at hand, however. A few precautionary preparations are well under way. There are plans in place for the distribution of food and other basic needs, and U.S. and U.N. forces are at hand to facilitate rescue missions. The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) says it is 80% of the way to completing the pre-positioning of 2 million food rations across the country. Because of potential roadblocks caused by floods, a barge service connecting all major Haitian ports is being set up to transport food and emergency items. "We are ready to start distributions within hours of a hurricane," says Benoit Thiry, deputy country director of the WFP. "WFP has never been more ready." The Red Cross and Red Crescent are coordinating hurricane preparedness for the bulk of nonfood items; the material for 84,000 tarpaulin tents will be distributed across country by the end of August. "It definitely would not be a perfect disaster response," says Lefrançois. But he adds, "We are more prepared now than we were in 2008." Now he and the people of Haiti will wait for the hurricanes to test them.