Haiti, the forgotten victim of Sandy

October 29, 2013 12:02PM ET
Despite progress, Haitians and donors face fatigue in addressing the Caribbean island’s humanitarian crisis
A Haitian woman sells goods in an area of pollution on May 28, 2013 near an open air market outside of Port au Prince.Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images

Before Superstorm Sandy made its way up to the Northeast crippling the tri-state area, it had already left its deadly mark — as a hurricane — in the Caribbean.

Still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 2010, and Tropical Storm Isaac in August 2012, Haiti was the last place prepared for another natural disaster. And though Hurricane Sandy only reached the edges of the island, it soaked its southern region with more than 20 inches of rainfall, killing more than 70 people and leaving hundreds of thousands of Haitians homeless.

But beyond the carnage caused by Hurricane Sandy, Haiti faces a broader challenge: fatigue.

“Damage to Haiti from Hurricane Sandy has been largely forgotten in the world media,” Deborah Jenson, director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University, told Al Jazeera. “However, even in Haiti, it may have faded into an accumulating continuum of natural disasters for all but the most directly affected. It is a challenge among challenges.”

George A. Ngwa, communications manager at the Haiti bureau of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), admits: “There has been a certain level of fatigue from donors due in part to the fact that Haiti faces too many natural disasters.” OCHA led the humanitarian response to Sandy in 2012, and continues to address the needs of those affected by the storm.

Sandy served a serious blow to Haiti’s agriculture industries, destroying livestock and crops including bananas, peas and beans. “The irrigation system was washed away,” said Ngwa.

“The food security situation in at least 60 of the 140 communes in Haiti is considered serious by international partners,” he added. “By the end of the 2012, it was estimated that 2 million people had been affected by the hurricane.”

Immediately following the storm, Haiti faced a spike in cholera and 22 cholera treatment facilities were destroyed. Significant damage was also done to infrastructure like potable water systems, riverbanks, schools and bridges.

‘Limiting Damage’

Nevertheless, progress has been made. Haitians facing severe food insecurity due to damage to the agriculture industry “stands at 600,000, down from 1.5 million in 2012,” Ngwa said, and added that in the last year, “cholera infection rates have fallen by 46 percent.”

Heraldo Munoz, assistant secretary-general and U.N. Development Program director for Latin America and the Caribbean, sees Haiti’s recovery from Sandy as a model.

“More than 300,000 people in Haiti have been engaged in community clean-up, which aids reconstruction and limits the risk of future events,” Munoz wrote in an Opinion article for Al Jazeera. “Workers have been building riverbank protection against floods, constructing walls to prevent landslides, and planting mangroves and forests to block winds and debris.”

Munoz added that lessons learned from previous natural disasters helped Haiti prevent further damage when Sandy pounded the Caribbean.

“It is widely accepted that measures taken before Sandy arrived, coupled with a culture of contingency, helped mitigate the severity of the storm, saving lives and limiting damage.”

Haiti, however, is still recovering. Thousands remain in vulnerable shelters after their homes were destroyed; cholera is a recurring deadly illness; and mental health is underreported.

“Our research in the Haiti Lab shows a considerable burden of post-traumatic stress,” Jenson at Duke University said. “Existing Haitian mental health infrastructure needs to be further developed by orders of magnitude to address the epidemiological impact of disasters.”

Despite the Haiti’s substantial challenges, Jenson sees hope.

“Haitians have adapted and rebuilt from multiple setbacks,” she said. “Haiti itself is not a disaster. It is a vibrant and productive nation.”


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