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Reaching out in hurricane devastated Haiti

September 18, 2008

In some areas of Haiti, Habitat partner families provide refuge in the face of disaster, while elsewhere on the island structures are in urgent need of recovery.

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Haitians cross a river after floods near Port-au-Prince


BERCY, HAITI (September 2008):
Some 200 local residents poured into a Habitat community in the village of Bercy, a rare area in the Cabaret province that did not suffer severe flooding as a result of a recent swell of hurricanes. A total of 39 partner families in this community opened the doors of their Habitat homes for neighbors and family members seeking shelter from the storm. With the support of the local municipality, Habitat Haiti provided food for the refuges.

Initial assessments show that 49 Habitat homes in various communities of Haiti were flooded during the consecutive disasters, which include tropical storm Fay and Hurricanes Hanna, Gustav and Ike, all which pummeled the island in a short four-week period beginning in mid-August. Aside from a need for small repairs, the Habitat homes are still standing.

Delfort Muchelin, the father of one such affected family from the Central Plateau, tells this story, “I was in my home at around 7pm when I heard a noise. I opened the door to see what it was, and water flooded into the house. I had just enough time to grab my wife and two children. When I tried to return, the entire area was under water—including 2-3 meters inside each house. All of our documents and personal belongings have been destroyed. The Habitat house, however, is thankfully safe and just needs to be cleaned.”

According to Claude Jeudy, National Director of Habitat Haiti since 2004, the long-term economic impact of recent hurricanes in Haiti will be serious. In this context, Habitat’s support in rebuilding efforts is crucial.

With three months still left in the 2008 hurricane season, some 800,000 people—nearly 10% of Haiti’s population—already have an urgent need for humanitarian assistance. According to reports from September 15, OCHA has identified as many as 423 official deaths as a result of the storms.

In Gonaives, where staff at Habitat’s Building and Training Center was forced to evacuate in a boat provided by Food for the Poor, waters rose to over 6 feet, and food and clean water have virtually run out. Some 60,000 people remain in shelters with no sleeping mats, toilets or medical supplies.

Jeudy talked with a Habitat homeowner in Gonaives. “She and fourteen other family members spent the entire day and night on the flat, concrete roof of their Habitat house,” he relays. “The water kept rising.”

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People wait in lines at a food distribution center in Gonaives

In addition to a tragic number of human casualties, Haiti’s agricultural sector has also suffered irrecoverable loss. Most arable lands are under water, and harvests have been reduced or destroyed in the midst of an already acute national food crisis.

Infrastructure as well was brutally hit, rendering bridges and principal roads impassable, thus slowing down humanitarian aid to many areas.

Many school buildings have suffered significant damage, and those still standing are in use as temporary shelters. The official date to reopen classes for Haitian youth has been indefinitely postponed.

Habitat’s response
Habitat for Humanity’s initial disaster response strategy will focus on affected communities where Habitat has established programs. The recovery includes building new, basic homes and repairing homes that are damaged, providing jobs and supporting entrepreneurs to spur rebuilding and economic stability, facilitating access to low-cost construction materials, and disaster prevention and mitigation training.

According to Jeudy, “It is difficult to say at this point exactly how much the response efforts will cost.” Because of the current economic crisis in the country, prices of construction materials have risen considerably, and he expects them to continue climbing. In the previous three months, the cost of iron rebar has doubled, cement has risen 66 percent, and gas has risen considerably.

HFH Haiti is researching innovative ways in which to reduce the cost of home repairs, but the need for additional funds in order to respond is acute. Mario Flores, director of disaster response field operations for Habitat for Humanity International, adds that the support of Habitat’s generous donors is what enables the housing ministry to make a real difference in rebuilding the lives of families, not only in Haiti but throughout the world.

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Argentine UN peacekeepers provide security for a food distribution center in Gonaives


Disasters and vulnerability

Haiti’s position in the Caribbean region repeatedly sets it in the direct path of storms, meaning that recovering communities are often struck several times in one season. From 1994-2008, 15 hurricanes and/or tropical storms hit the island.

Compounding the problem, approximately 30% of Haiti’s mountainous terrain reaches more than 100 meters above sea level, and severe forestation has stripped over 99% of that land from forest cover. This means immediate and significant erosion during storms, which quickly results in a scarcity of drinking water, agricultural loss as arable lands are flooded toward the sea, and dangerous landslides. Additionally, obstruction of drainage and irrigation canals results in more and deeper floods—thus perpetuating a vicious cycle for Haitian people.

HFH Haiti assists vulnerable families with their shelter needs by providing affordable loans for basic housing, access to materials, technical assistance and vocational training through Building and Training Centers (BTC), financial literacy training, and partnerships to repair, expand, or improve existing shelter. Since 1982, HFH Haiti has responded to the devastation caused by hurricanes and other disasters, helping families to rebuild and promoting disaster resistant housing and disaster mitigation training, where participants learn how to minimize risk to themselves and their homes in the face of future storms.

For more information on Habitat’s response in Haiti, please contact disaster@habitat.org.