The Storms in Haiti

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

THOUGH AN active hurricane season this year has yet to produce a major disaster in the United States, the same cannot be said for the poor nations of the Caribbean. Yesterday, Hurricane Ike -- which may be headed for the U.S. Gulf Coast -- swept the length of Cuba, destroying thousands of homes. Even worse off is Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, which has found itself in the path of four major storms in just three weeks. The result has been a death toll estimated from 320 to more than 600 and as many as 1 million people left homeless. Always short of food, water, housing and medicine, Haiti is in particularly desperate need this week.

The latest storm, Ike, killed at least 61 people on Sunday, including more than a dozen children swept away in the town of Cabaret, north of the capital of Port-au-Prince. But the greatest misery was in the northern city of Gonaives, which has been repeatedly flooded, leaving its residents without food or clean water for days. On Sunday, the last bridge to the city collapsed, preventing the delivery of supplies. Though water levels reportedly receded somewhat yesterday, runoff was still pouring toward the city from the country's deforested mountains. "After 25 years spent working in Haiti, and having grown up in Florida, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as painful as what I just witnessed in Gonaives," reported the public health activist Paul Farmer, "except in that very same city, four years ago." Disaster has become chronic in Gonaives: in 2004 some 2,000 died in mudslides following a tropical storm.

The U.S. Navy dispatched an amphibious ship to Haiti, where it arrived yesterday with a badly needed complement of helicopters that can carry aid to Gonaives and other flooded areas. The U.S. Agency for International Development also pledged $7 million in relief, and Venezuela said it was sending 20 tons of aid. But Haitians will need considerably more help to recover: not just emergency supplies of food and medicine but help in reconstructing homes and in carrying out public works projects that could prevent such flooding in the future. The Red Cross, Oxfam and Direct Relief International are among the private humanitarian groups working to provide relief in Haiti; Partners in Health sponsors a community health-care network. They need help. As President René Préval told the Miami Herald, "this is Katrina in the entire country but without the means that Louisiana had."

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