'We've Been Hurricaned:' Haitians Struggle to Find Food, Shelter After Hurricane

Oct 17, 2016

Hurricane Matthew leveled close to half the homes in Goyave, Haiti, and ripped the roofs off many more. Wind flattened groves of plantain trees and water carried away most of the community’s livestock.

But on the 11th day after the storm, the only visible sign of outside help was a construction crew putting up new electric poles. 

A member of the utility crew still putting up new electric poles, though existing power lines have been wiped out across the region.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety

Clitus Guernel said his team was stringing up electric wire to extend the grid into the countryside when the storm came. "The storm overtook us here," Clitus Guernel explained. “Now, we’re going forward—putting up cable, bringing electricity.”

Now new poles are going up again, but it could be a long time before they carry electricity. Miles of existing power lines were knocked out by the hurricane.

Nearby, Guertha Calixe sat on a porch with her neighbors opening coconuts scavenged from downed trees, lamenting other crops that have already spoiled.

"I don’t have any food to give my kids," she said. "Just a little piece of coconut for me to give them dinner."

'We've lost everything and we're left with our own two hands.'

The porch is nearly all that’s left of the home she shares with her six children. "We're outside!" she said. Calixe put up battered roofing saved after the storm over the only room left with intact walls, she said, "just to stop the sun." Her fields are a wasteland of fallen trees and snarled vegetation, her animals washed down-river. All around, smoke rose from brush fires set to clear away some of the debris.

Eleven days after the storm, a neighbor found Guertha Calixe's hoe in the mud behind her house.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

A presidential election that was to take place the Sunday after Hurricane Matthew, already postponed more than once,  is now set for Nov. 20. Campaign portraits and brochures littered the rubble of Calixe's front room.

"Nobody has come out here," she said. "You'd think we'd see somebody: a mayor, a councilman, a deputy. We've lost everything and we've been left with our own two hands."

You'd think we'd see somebody: a mayor, a councilman, a deputy. We've lost everything and we've been left with our own two hands.—Guertha Calixe

"How can we think about elections when our whole family is living in the street?" she added.

A neighbor came by with a hoe he found in the mud behind her house. It seems like the best news she’s gotten all day — a reminder of how little of this town has left.

'We've been hurricaned.'

 “We’ve been hurricaned," said Simone Francois, standing near a row of wrecked, roofless houses. "Our livelihoods were in the trees. Plantains, papaya, coconuts, breadfruit... "

People salvaged what possessions they could from homes the storm reduced to rubble. Many families have taken refuge in the homes of neighbors whose houses were less damaged.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

Francois gestured to a bunch of plantains on the ground.

"This is what the weather knocked down," she said. "We’ve been keeping them under straw so they don’t spoil."

"We have nothing, nothing, nothing." Francois said. "And nobody’s here to help us."

People were taking up their work as they can—one man sold sugarcane from a wheelbarrow while a woman down the street spread rice to dry on a tarp.

'Normally an invisible population'

Many of the worst hit-areas in southern Haiti are far more remote than Goyave.

"This is normally an invisible population," said Beth Carroll, in Les Cayes, where she is overseeing Catholic Relief Service’s emergency response to Hurricane Matthew.

Sturdier concrete walls were not enough to keep the metal roofs of many schools and churches from flying off or caving under a falling tree.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

"Unfortunately a lot of the communities that are isolated are by definition less developed," Carroll said. "They don’t have good roads, they don’t have good sanitation, they don’t have good water sources."

That makes them more vulnerable to disasters and also, harder to reach with help. But even in Les Cayes, the biggest city in the South, Mayor Gabriel Fortuné said many people have the same complaint.

 “We’ve been out to all six districts,” he said. “But not everyone has gotten help. It’s just a symbolic gesture.”

Given the magnitude of this catastrophe, he said the government doesn't have the capacity to do any better. But even in places that have gotten some help — cornmeal and beans, blankets, soap — it’s easy to see how popular frustration can get to a boiling point

On Friday, Catholic Relief Services distributed hygiene kits in Torbeck, a coastal town near Les Cayes. 

Complaints began before the distribution had even started.

As two policeman passed by, Denise Guémarie pointed at their batons.

"You see those batons they’re carrying there?" she said. "They’re not afraid to hit you in the head or anywhere else."

People grabbed hold of one another to keep their place in line amid the pushing.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety

Fighting and pushing had broken out during a food distribution the day before. After seeing that, Guémarie said she was resigned to not getting anything at all.

Her neighbor Simon Pere-Jouinel said it should be organized differently.

Rather than creating these chaotic lines, "What if the mayor or a councilman went to door to door and took down the name and address of each house?" he asked. That way you could see where the need is greatest.

In fact, that’s something like what the system is already meant to do. "First we go out in the field to see what the needs are in each area," said Michael Augustin, who coordinates distribution for Catholic Relief Services in Les Cayes.

The goal of early outreach is to identify people  based on the impact to their homes and on their needs for survival, and it might prioritize the elderly or people with disabilities and families with young children, he said. That work is largely done by local partners— like municipal 'Civil Protection' departments and Catholic churches and, said Augustin, "we often have reservations about the choices they make."

They're the legal authority in that community: They can't give us a list and have us say, 'That list is no good.' —Michael Augustin

Where local governments are concerned, Augustin said, "They're the legal authority in that community; we can't question that. They can't give us a list and have us say, 'No, this list is no good.' The only method we have right now is to try as much as possible, to verify and make sure these are the people on the list."

Then they give them cards to redeem for supplies.

'They give to their own'

But even when that happens the way it’s supposed to, looking from the outside in it’s hard to watch.

Riot police guarded the gate while people squeezed up against it in a long, snaking line. The people who were supposed to had already been chosen. 

A rush of the crowd followed two men who gave out tickets, seemingly at random. According to bystanders, these were men who worked for the city’s “Civil Protection” department, responsible for determining who is eligible for distributions.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety / WLRN

But two men who bystanders said were from the town's Civil Protection Department caused an uproar as soon as they appeared. A rush of the crowd followed as they seemed to hand out cards at random, a wave of people that bumped up against a pink house across the street. Bystanders said they were from the town's Civil Protection department. 

An old woman who said her house had been crushed by three coconut trees yelled out  as she walked by: "Everywhere they’ve given out cards' I haven’t gotten a thing," she said.  "They give to their own."

Stay tuned for more reporting around the efforts of Haitian Americans to give their support of send money directly to relatives in Haiti.