Friday, November 05, 2010

Hurricane Tomas in Jeremie, Haiti

It's been a few days since I blogged on my time here in Haiti. I had to discuss the election. But I see Haiti, including my town, all over the news. So I want to offer an update.

But first some background...

Haiti has four four-day weekends:

New Year (January 1 & 2)
Mardi Gras (& Lundi Gras)
Good Friday (and Good Thursday)
Day of the Dead (November 1 & 2)

Day of the Dead is relevant for a future post, but also because I just had Monday and Tuesday off from work.

And some more relevant background for this post:

I'm here replacing another CPA. And before she leaves, she wanted to see a bit more of the country. So she took the opportunity to extend her long weekend and planned on taking an extra day and a half holiday, returning on Thursday afternoon.

I'm based in a town named Jeremie and she visited a town named Aux Cayes (or Les Cayes, if you want to look at a map). The two towns are probably about 30 miles apart, but that's typically a seven hour ride by bus which is the most common (and regularly scheduled) form of transportation. She told me that cars and motorbikes can make the trip in four to five hours though.

And now the status update:

All week there has been talk about the impending hurricane. Following the earthquake and the cholera outbreak, I'm guessing the government realizes the value of disaster preparation. And by Wednesday, I figured Ann -- the girl I'm replacing -- wouldn't even be returning this week as Jeremie and Les Cayes both lay in the projected path of the eye of Hurricane Tomas. Then by early Thursday morning, she called to say she was probably going to be stuck in Aux Cayes until the hurricane had gone and roads were again passable.

The morning came and went, but at lunch the office door flew open. "Miracles do happen!" she said. After half a dozen phone calls and referrals on Thursday morning, she got in touch with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). They were probably going to be driving the last SUV out of Les Cayes to Jeremie before the hurricane really hit.

But they didn't get out before the hurricane hit. For the first half of the trip -- probably to where the mountains slowed Tomas' progression -- the hurricane was pouring down. At one point, the SUV had to cross a river.

She told me that although they were in a rush, they initially waited to see someone walk across the river to gauge the depth of the water. Seeing someone cross, they decided to go for it and the SUV didn't stall! But there was a fairly surprising comment she made to me.

She said that she made sure they rolled down the windows because she didn't want to get into a car accident and drown. I understood what she was saying, but it still seemed a bit odd. She then elaborated. About a year ago, she knew three people who drowned in that same spot. So obviously this is one of those places in the world where flash floods occur -- because of steep canyon walls -- and kill.

She had gotten across without any serious injury. But she added that there really wasn't any problem crossing the river. And they were able to hightale it back to Jeremie. And after all that conversation, our boss let us know that there was actually one more SUV doing the Les Cayes - Jeremie trek yesterday. So Ann would've had one more chance to return before the weekend.

That was all on Thursday.

Fast forward to today.

Although the health clinic was closed, Ann and I worked. Just too much to do with the transition. And when I walked in the door, Ann told me about the second SUV.

At that same crossing, her "backup ride" tried to cross the river a few hours later. And whether they rolled down their windows or not... the nightmared came to be. And by the time I got home today, the AP was reporting on it:

Four deaths were confirmed by Haitian officials, all people attempting to cross rivers by car or on foot in the mountainous region to the west of Leogane, on Haiti's far southwestern tip.

It really is a tragedy.

Yet as close as this struck to home, there was something as equally unnerving to me as the fragility of life. It's the raw feelings and the sensory overload that can lead to some temporary desensitizing for me during my time in the developing world. With all the deprivation and death that I see in some parts of the world, I just can't help it at times.

Having said all that, I'm glad to report that I haven't heard of any deaths in Jeremie proper. And since flooding is a serious issue in some of the most poverty-stricken slums in Jeremie -- part of the reason I decided to come here -- it's worth noting. Though I'm guessing we'll get an increased number of visitors to the clinic by Monday.

I've got a ton of homework to get done this weekend. But if I take a walk, I'll head down to the parts of town that were probably hit hardest and get you an update.

Tim White


Anonymous said...

Tim, this is a serious reminder that you are serving in a dangerous part of the world. People are praying for you, but still be careful at all times!

Anonymous said...

What has Nov. 6 brought to Jeremie?
please post update.

tim white said...

12:24 thank you. I will try.

3:50 It's been a mixture of on and off sunny blue skies and sporadic drizzling.

I saw a chopper flying overhead today... actually awoke to it and was wondering if Haiti has an air force? But then read a report that the US Navy is here for damage surveillance. So I'm sure that was what I saw this morning around 7am or so, I think.

I've been trying to catch up on my studies (tons of internet hookup problems at first) and haven't ventured my where I'm living (a ten minute walk down the hill) to see the most troubled areas near the bottom of the hill / shoreline.

I did ask some locals though and they said that everyone is "bon." Though I suspect the language barrier is best interpreted as no one died, rather than everything is well. I did get though that the areas that flood are generally cleared of water now. So I'm confident the floods have now moved out to the ocean, at least here in Jeremie.

But I could easily see problems arising after the fact. For instance, there's no sewer system here. So where does all the human waste go? And does it cause problems after the flooding? My guess is yes. But that stuff could easily take 24 hrs to really start to kick in.

Again, I'm not on top of all this stuff. It'll take me some time to pick up the language... and more time to start to learn the nuance.

But that's my perspective at the moment for Jeremie.

The immediate deaths were probably limited to that one river crossing in the mountains.