Haiti After Matthew: Damaged Schools, Families With No Place To Live

Oct 24, 2016

Thirteen-year-old Ivana Fenelon walked up to me outside a church and primary school in Camp Perrin the week after Hurricane Matthew had leveled most of the homes in Pérénie, the rural hamlet where she lives with her family, a three-hour walk into the mountains. “I want to talk too,” she said, as I finished an interview about the hurricane with a farmer from another nearby town.

“What he’s saying is important,” she explained. “There must be some things that are very painful for him that he’s telling you about, so I’ll talk too.”

Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

We walked across the street to a park strewn with branches and fallen trees where the swings were still tied into knots by the wind 10 days after the storm. A group of boys played soccer on a basketball court with one hoop left. The other hoop lay on the ground.

As Ivana and two friends sat down on a bench, she listed the names of her parents, her three sisters and two brothers before launching into a gripping account of the night of the hurricane. Matter-of-factly, with a soft sadness in her voice, she said the storm caught her family completely by surprise. “It was only afterwards that people told us that they’d known the storm was coming,” she said.

“When the storm hit, all six of us kids were inside,” she said. “The roof blew off and we started to cry out, ‘O lord.’ "

Related: Hear a full hour of special coverage on The Sunshine Economy: Haiti, Help, and Hurricane Matthew

Ivana said her mother, Élienne George, was killed when a wall collapsed on top of her. “We all would have died if we had been in there,” she said, but her father managed to keep the children on the other side. “Nou rete sou kont bondyè” she said. — "We’re in God’s hands now."

The family lost their crops, their livestock and their home; her father managed to salvage a single suitcase he pulled down from the rafters before the roof flew off, saving Ivana and her siblings’ birth certificates, a cell phone and a few other possessions.

Ivana and her family are living with several other families in a neighbor’s house. Ivana wants to go back to school—she’s gone to talk with her teacher—but she says the teacher won’t let her return to class until she can replace her books and her backpack.

Her aunt, meanwhile, is worried about paying for school in the first place. “I had eight sheep!” she told me later that afternoon. “All eight died: those sheep are what I used to make a living, to put my kids through school.”

“Even if we do our best to rush and reopen schools,” said Esnel Sincère, who runs a local private school, “where are parents going to come up with money to pay for school?”

As with Ivana’s family, the very things the storm destroyed across huge swaths of South Haiti—livestock and crops—often function like rural bank accounts: You sell a pig or a goat when a big expense comes up.

More than 80 percent of Haitian schools are private, with tuition that covers their basic operating costs paid in several installments a year. Tuition at Esner Sincere’s school is about $200 a year.

“Imagine: we’re in the month of October now. But there are students who haven’t paid the first trimester fees, which were due in August,” Sincère said. “How are those families going to afford it now? If parents are able to scrape together any money at all, they have to use it to buy sheet metal so they can put a roof over their heads.”

Sincère pulls out his smartphone to show me pictures of the damage his own school sustained. “Here’s the main office,” he said, showing a tidy yellow building without a roof. Most of the files kept— including many students’ birth certificates—were destroyed in the hurricane.

What's left of a plaintain field that supplied a school cafeteria in Les Cayes
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

An assessment done by volunteers with the local government found that all 80 schools in Camp Perrin had some damage— and five were destroyed. There is not yet a reliable estimate of how many schools were damaged. The latest figures from Haiti’s Civil Protection Department put the number of damaged or destroyed schools at 790, including schools in all but two provinces.

UNICEF estimates that 116,000 Haitian students remain out of school, a number that is likely to go up, even if the impact remains short of the 7,000 schools damaged in the 2010 earthquake.

A table full of drying school books at the École Normale des Cayes
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

Where they can, school staff have been taking it upon themselves to repair the damage. At Les Cayes, on the coast 15 miles southeast of Camp Perrin, Sister Rose André has been leading her staff in a days-long effort to stack fallen branches and trees into tidy piles and spread dozens of school books out to dry in the sun.

Suzette Mérisand, who supervises the École Normale’s tattered second floor dormitories, held both hands out above her waist to show how high the water had risen in a room where the hurricane ripped off the roof. She pointed out caving ceilings and stacks of battered mattresses they had dragged downstairs to dry out in the courtyard.

So far, they haven’t even considered how they will rebuild two classrooms that were completely demolished. Sister Andre hopes  the relief effort will include some kind of government support to get schools running again—after the earthquake, large donors like the World Bank subsidized tuition for hundreds of thousands of students. Aid groups are working to do something similar now, but the effort has yet to materialize. “I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we have to go back to work all the same,” Andre said.

Schools that weren’t damaged by the storm have another challenge. Across town, at Ecole Primaire de St. Anne, caretaker Joël Josile took a break from sweeping the floors to re-tell the events of the hurricane. “It was the middle of the night. I was sleeping right over there,” he said, pointing out a spot near the school’s entrance, “when I heard four young men knocking on the gate.”

A boy peaks his head out from the shade of the ruins of a house in Lasinal, in Les Cayes; his family took refuge in the nearby École Primaire de St. Anne after Hurricane Matthew
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

“I didn’t want to let them in”—he worried that the school principal would be angry—”but they climbed over the wall,” Josile said.

“People are dying outside,” Josile said the young men told him. “When they told me that, I saw I couldn’t say no.”

Before the storm was over, hundreds of people from the ramshackle neighborhood just behind the school poured in through the gates.

“I know the principal isn’t happy, but I think God has seen what I’ve done," explained school caretaker Joël Josile, of his decision to let in residents who'd lost their homes during Hurricane Matthew.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

“And since then, they’ve been here,” he said—sleeping in classrooms, doing their laundry in the courtyard outside, going out during the day to work as maids, merchants and motorcycle taxi drivers. “I know the principal isn’t happy, but I think God has seen what I’ve done.”

The neighborhood they left—Lasinal—is a maze of half crushed houses just steps from St. Anne’s back wall. Behind the school, resident Antonine Germain led the way down a narrow alleyway flanked by one- and two-room houses where children played on the floor of homes without doors or roofs. A woman took a nap on a bare mattress piled high with clothes.

“All these people are living in St. Anne,” Germain said. We took a right past one more row of damaged houses and jumped over tires laid out in the mud like stepping stones. Germain waved her arm over a swamp littered with styrofoam and discarded baskets. “People use this water to wash in and do their laundry, she says. It’s a spotless, blue-sky day, yet before us, the path to another section of Lasinal is still flooded.

"All these people are living in St. Anne," said Antonine Germain, of her neighborhood in Les Cayes, Lasinal, where most of the homes were destroyed.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

“Sometimes it gets backed up,” Germain explained, “but the storm brought so much mud we haven’t been able to get the water to flush back out.”

This is not the kind of neighborhood the students who go to St. Anne live in—it’s a middle-class school and it was among of the first schools in the region to re-open last week. The principal and some residents feared a confrontation.

“They wanted to do a leve kampé”—or a ‘get up, stand up’— Woosveld Sinclair, a community leader in Lasinal, said of his neighbors over the phone. “They wanted to hold the school hostage until the government provided roofing or some kind of place for them to go.”

But in the end, Sinclair said, the situation was defused peacefully. “We said, ‘This is not a public school and it saved our lives. Let’s not make trouble or we may not have a place to go if we need to come back."

People fanned out to sleep at relatives’ or in churches and other schools, Sinclair explained, though many remain stranded. As heavy rains continued to fall in Les Cayes this past week, Lasinal was flooded with knee-high rainwater mixed with sewage and trash flushed out in the hurricane.

As French lessons and math classes resumed next door, of the people of Lasinal, Sinclair said, “We’re still outside.”