The Sunshine Economy: Haiti, Help And Hurricane Matthew

Oct 24, 2016

Drive down on Lucy Street in Homestead, take a right at a school painted pink, then a left at the stop sign and you will find yourself surrounded by Haitians in a horseshoe-shaped apartment complex. They've come to Homestead, most of them from Southern Haiti, the same mountainous peninsula that was hit by Hurricane Matthew Oct. 4.

Inside Ilorieuse Rodney's apartment sacks of rice are stacked in her living room. They are among the items she's trying to send back home to Pestel. She says she doesn’t want to donate it to a relief organization because she worries it won’t make it to her family. Instead, she says she needs $300 to send it directly in a shipping container.

Rodney's Homestead apartment complex, where multiple residents lost loved ones and houses in the storm, is a reminder that even here, more than 600 miles away, Hurricane Matthew's impact is highly concentrated.

Hurricane Matthew destroyed thousands of acres of Haiti’s agricultural industry, leaving an already struggling economy hungry for cash and aid from South Florida. Haitians in America send more than $1 billion to the island each year.

"Our diaspora is getting old. Our second generation is not linking to Haiti," said Gandy Thomas, consul general of Haiti in Miami. He believes remittances will decrease as Haitian-Americans with more direct connections to the island age. However, Thomas also calls the South Florida Haitian community "engaged" after the hurricane.

Haiti needs cash "to activate the economy." - Gandy Thomas, consul general of Haiti in Miami

Fred Tony's company sees the changes in money and food being sent to Southern Haiti in the weeks after Matthew. Tony is the general manager for money transfer firm Caribbean Airmail, better known as C.A.M. He says C.A.M. has seen a 10 percent increase in cash exchanges between the U.S. and the island and a 25 percent jump in the amount of food C.A.M. customers are sending to Haiti. "People may have money and cannot buy because of the damages," he says. "That is why people are sending a lot of food."   

The average remittance is $140, according to C.A.M. It's money that may be encountering higher prices, even outside the area of Haiti hardest hit by Matthew. The region that experienced the strongest winds and storm surge was largely agricultural. "Price goes up," said Consul General Thomas. "Roads are blocked. For the food to come to Port-au-Prince from the rural areas, it costs more." He estimates some food prices are up 20 to 35 percent.

Thomas echoed the guidance from other Haitian community organizations regarding help. "We don't need clothes. We don't need water." Instead, he says it's cash and construction equipment -- steel, lumber, etc. -- "to activate the economy."