I’ve come to dread writing about my native Haiti. It seems that when I sit at my desk and tackle the subject, my fingers are writing about yet another disaster. This time it’s the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, with a death toll in the hundreds and tens of thousands left homeless. The United Nations is appealing for $120 million to address the devastation that has hit a poor island nation that seems to have neither the capacity nor the luck to avoid catastrophe.
In 2010, it was the devastating earthquake that took an estimated 300,000 lives; a couple of years later it was the cholera epidemic, a disease unknown in Haiti until inadvertently introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops. Only this past summer did the U.N. end years of denial about its role in a disease that has killed 10,000 and sickened 800,000. There is no indication that any victims will be compensated. A new cholera epidemic could already be underway.
On a comparative scale, 1,000 deaths from Hurricane Matthew (the count as of last week) would seem far less disastrous than the previous crises — but the tragedy is about more than the casualty count. Consecutive disasters have not left Haiti the time or the ability to recover from one event before receiving the next deadly blow. The southern region of Haiti, less developed and less densely populated than the rest of the country, was generally spared by the earthquake of 2010. News reports indicate that the hurricane may have been even more devastating, destroying as much as 80 percent of the housing stock in Les Cayes and Jérémie, two principal cities in the south. The U.N. estimates that 175,000 victims are in temporary shelters and that 1.5 million need help.
Haiti, which has so long prided itself as the first nation to throw off the shackles of slavery and maintain its independence for more 200 years, once again confronts the reality of its dependence on others for even the most basic services. As the Haitian newspaper Le National editorialized last week: “Matthew has certainly confirmed the failure of the state, a state unable to count the victims. Worse, unable to come to their aid.” The editorial concludes: “Haiti is on its knees; it’s a fact.”
As Le National indicates, Haitians bear some of the blame for this helplessness. Too many unscrupulous politicians and businessmen saw the post-earthquake relief effort as an opportunity to get rich. Too many will once again be maneuvering for positions at the trough of foreign aid. But foreigners have some responsibility as well. Much of the $14 billion pledged in 2010 never materialized. What did reach Haiti was diverted away from the government to NGOs and consultants out of fear of corruption and arrogance about who knew best for the country. One result: The government of Haiti never acquired the resources to build an emergency response capability or improve its fragile infrastructure. The United States led an effort to manipulate elections and put into office a president it believed most compliant to its concerns.
Haitians are not standing still. Business leaders immediately made supplies, generators and transportation available. Volunteers cleared debris and swept roads. The hundreds of organizations created by Haitian émigrés in the United States, Canada and France went to work collecting money, food and clothing to ship to Haiti. They have grown accustomed to dealing with disaster and know not to wait for governments to act.
But in the long term, Haitians see their native land and the tangible evidence of their history disappearing as a result of these serial disasters. To audiences in New York and Paris, the names of towns badly damaged by Hurricane Matthew are just names. But to us Haitians — Les Cayes, Jérémie, Les Anglais, Les Coteaux, Port-a-Piment — each has special meaning tied to our personal histories. These were once charming seaside towns with their own bustling trade and a relaxed lifestyle away from the frenzy of Port-au-Prince. Some, like Les Cayes, have ancient roots, dating to Columbus’s explorations in the early 1500s. Jérémie was known as the “city of poets” for spawning some of our best-known bards. These towns suffered when the Duvalier regime centralized power and continued to decline from neglect after the dictators were gone. The hurricane could be a death blow for some.
Just two years ago, while researching a book on my family’s 300-year presence in Haiti, I took a tour of those small towns along that isolated southern peninsula and was struck by the beauty of their curving, white sand beaches with nary a tourist in sight. It was at Les Coteaux that my French colonial ancestor started an indigo plantation in the early 1700s. Les Cayes was where his sons and daughters married and Jérémie was where his grandson, a signer of the Haitian declaration of independence, died in 1804, just months after helping win independence from Napoleon’s France.
My family lost our home in Port-au-Prince in the 2010 earthquake, making my ties to Haiti more tenuous. I imagine that thousands of Haitians abroad will feel the same sense of loss after Matthew. They will continue to support relatives, but the disappearance of memories in brick and stone portend a perilous fraying of connections to a country so dependent on millions of dollars from abroad for its own survival.