At the edge of disaster, a few days of rain can be lethal.
On Monday, the scale of damage in Haiti from Hurricane Sandy became evident. Even though the storm’s center skirted the country, more than 20 inches of rain fell on Haiti’s south and southwest over four days last week, causing at least 52 deaths, tearing out crops and destroying houses.
“We are facing a major crisis,” Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said this weekend after he flew over the regions that had been hit by the storm.
The government said that the homes of as many as 200,000 people had been damaged — on top of almost 400,000 people still homeless from the January 2010 earthquake. “We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of the aid that we will need to deliver in the days, weeks and months to come,” Mr. Lamothe said. “It won’t be easy because there are many roads and bridges that have been cut off.”
Coming on the heels of Tropical Storm Isaac in August, the latest storm has piled new misfortune on Haiti, as it struggles to recover from the earthquake and the cholera epidemic that broke out 10 months later, which has killed thousands and sickened more than half a million people.
“You get so set back by each storm, it gets hard to keep the forward momentum,” said Deborah Jenson, the director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University.
Ms. Jenson was talking about the efforts to reverse Haiti’s dramatic level of deforestation, which magnifies the effects of storms, turning rainfall into destructive torrents rushing down denuded hillsides. Haitians use the Creole expression “Lapli ap tonbe,” which means “the rain is falling,” to say things are not going well, she said.
But in describing the setbacks to growing new trees, she could as easily have been talking about the crisscrossing efforts to rebuild the poorest country in the Americas and provide its people with even the most basic elements of decent living conditions.
Disasters can generate creative solutions, Ms. Jenson said. But in Haiti, “so much of the infrastructure that would be in place to make innovations are damaged,” she said.
Mr. Lamothe made a similar point as he spoke to local reporters this weekend. The country has to invest to build levees and dredge rivers and bays to stop each heavy rainfall from becoming calamitous, he said.
“Big decisions will be taken,” he promised, “because the state cannot continually be on the defensive every time it rains or there is a flood. We have to invest in prevention.”
The greatest immediate concern is to prevent a new spike in cholera cases, said France Hurtubise, a spokeswoman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Port-au-Prince, on Monday. The Red Cross has begun distributing hygiene kits and water purification tablets.
An estimated 390,000 people are still homeless from the earthquake despite billions of dollars that were pledged in international aid. “There are still a lot of people in tents,” Ms. Hurtubise said. “Every time there is a disaster, they are hurt the worst.”
And with so many crops destroyed, including plantain, maize and sugar cane, authorities are also concerned about food supplies in coming months.
“We’ll have famine in the coming days,” Kechner Toussaint, the mayor of Abricots, on Haiti’s southwestern tip, told Reuters. “It’s an agricultural disaster.”