Saturday, October 8, 2016

Port au Prince before the hurricane

Jonas Bellevue walked through the densely populated slum, moving slowly amid the winding maze of narrow corridors and tin shacks, screaming.

“Get out of here, Get out of here,” the assistant mayor of Haiti’s largest slum, Cité Soleil, yelled as he stuck his bald head in doorways and climbed over muddy paths and wooden canoes in the drizzling rain. “What’s coming is bad.” Residents, hearing Jonas panicked plea, asked in a dismissive tone, “Where to? How?”

Haiti’s cash-strapped government has asked residents living along the country’s coastline to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Matthew. And while some, doubting the forecasts, have stubbornly refused to evacuate flood-prone communities such as Leogane, jeremie and the southern island of Ile-a-Vache, others say they would like to protect themselves, but lacked the ability to do so. “If they relocate us, I’ll go,” said Amita Lestin, 60, a resident in Wharf Jeremie, which is partly built on trash. “But how? We don’t have anywhere to go and no way to get there.”

Haiti braces itself on Oct. 3, 2016 as it begins to feel the effects of Hurricane Matthew. Hurricane Matthew is expected to bring sea surges between 7 and 10 feet when it hits Haiti on Monday and Tuesday. While the southern peninsula is most at risk, all of Haiti is under threat, officials say. Cité Soleil is located in the Port-Au-Prince metropolitan area.

Cité Soleil sits below sea-level, which means hundreds of thousands of people possibly being affected by storm surge and rain.

“A total catastrophe,” said Cité Soleil Mayor Jean Hislain Frederic. “The way Cité Soleil is built, it’s a bowl so all of the water from Petionville, Delmas, Kenscoff, Port-au-Prince — all invade the people of Cité Soleil.”

For days, Frederic and Jonas have been hitting the airwaves pleading for help with finding shelters and buses to move an estimated 100,000 residents out of danger. Nearby Delmas Mayor Wilson Jeudy refused their request, they said, while Port-au-Prince Mayor Youry Chevry never responded. Petionville Mayor Dominique Saint Roc did respond, offering to give shelter to up to 200 people. “We don’t have any buses,” Jonas said.

Nevertheless, he and Frederic walked the streets of the slum Monday, pleading with residents to leave. At the forefront of their minds, they said, is 2004’s Hurricane Jeanne, which killed at least 3,000 people in the city of Gonaives after residents were caught off guard in the middle of the night.
There was also Hurricane Ike in 2008, which sent frightened mothers running with their babies in the middle of the storm. What the storm’s waters didn’t sweep away, an overflowing river did, killing dozens of children. “You always have people who are reluctant to leave,” Frederic said. “But when the danger is in front of them, when the water starts to come down, all will run. Then, we will have a bigger problem on our hands.”

The elected officials who took office three months ago have been closely following the weather updates. Matthew scares them.

“What can reach us between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. is typical of what happened in Gonaives with Jeanne and the amount of water that can invade Cité Soleil,” Jonas said. “We, in Cité Soleil, won’t be able to handle it. We will have a lot of people who die.” There are about 500,000 people who live in Cité Soleil, mostly all of them in dilapidated housing built on debris. Officials have identified 15 shelters with a total capacity of 2,000 people, they said. Only two of the facilities are schools. Most of them are open-air, including an athletic field.

“Even if it means having people wait out the storm in the streets, it’s better than having them remain inside by the sea,” Jonas said. “To save people’s lives today, we have no other choice.”

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