Tropical Storm Jean, or 'cyclone Jeanne' as it is referred to in Haiti, brought rains that inundated the coastal plane of Artibonite Department, and caused monumental damage in the country's third largest city, Gonaives. By most estimates, between 17 and 19 September 2004, the storm killed some 3,000 people. The rains led to heavy flooding, exacerbated by the fact that the sewage canals running through the streets had not been cleaned in years, and thus clogged and were unable to absorb the water. Eighty per cent of the city was under water for about three days. Worse, mountains and hills deforested by peasants who eke out their living by burning trees for charcoal surround the city. Tons of heavy mud from these barren hillsides filled streets, canals and buildings. There was little food or potable water at first; people fled with only the clothes they were wearing. Communication lines were cut and residents were unable to reach family or friends. Three days passed before some vehicles could enter or leave the city.
The international community responded to Jeanne. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) issued an emergency appeal for USD 32 million for the affected population (MINUSTAH, 2004) and governments in Asia, Europe and North America dispatched massive relief assistance. United Nations (UN) agencies and dozens of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), small and large, launched relief operations. Humanitarian bodies already present in the country redeployed staff to the flooded area. Thousands of Haitians living outside of the country also raised money and sent goods, sometimes channelling their contributions through international relief entities.
Delivering relief assistance to Gonaives was far from easy. First, the roads were blocked with standing water, debris and mud. Second, would-be first responders in the city were themselves victims of the disaster, many having lost family members and property. Hence, they were unable to access the resources they needed or to communicate with one another. Third, the country already was in a state of crisis due to the political situation. Fourth, the government was unprepared and only peripherally involved in relief efforts.
Gonaives: the context
With the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in late February 2004, the already high levels of violence and insecurity in Haiti increased further. The weak transition government that replaced Aristide was buttressed by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) from the end of April, with a mandate to restore and maintain rule of law, safety and public order and to promote human rights. Rule of law and public order were far from being in place at the time Jeanne struck the Haitian coast and destroyed Gonaives. As humanitarian relief was made available and distributed throughout the city, humanitarian agencies had to rely on MINUSTAH's armed presence to protect deliveries and prevent looting.
Gonaives has seen less violence than Haiti's capital, Port au Prince, but it is subject to the same insecurity, corruption, crime, unemployment and weak, ineffective government that affect the capital and the rest of the country. It is a port city, but the harbour has ceased to function. Overall, the town is poor, lacking major sources of income generation, although, as in all cities, a few people are wealthy, and there is a modestly sized middle class. Since it is a commercial centre, and located in an agricultural area, it has attracted newcomers from smaller towns. A major attraction for numerous Haitian families from these smaller towns is that Gonaives has public schools and a larger number of private secondary schools. Families continue to migrate and settle there for short or long periods in order to send their children to school. Apart from Gonaives, Artibonite Department lacks educational facilities beyond the primary grades. The city is politically very diverse and has experienced political violence on occasion. The general impression of the population is one of shared frustration and cynicism regarding government, including the possible outcomes of the elections that were about to take place at the time of writing (January 2006). Officially, employment in the city is reported to be only 20 per cent (Oxfam, 2005) and people without full-time employment survive by engaging in part-time occasional work in the informal sector. Clearly, enforced idleness and minimal opportunities to earn an income have added to frustration among the population.
The city remains scarred to a great degree by the hurricane that overwhelmed it on 18 September 2004; everybody's memories of Jeanne are acute. There are signs of reconstruction at sites all over the town, but one finds far more indicators of the storm's destructive legacy. One still comes across visible signs of water damage and semi-destroyed buildings in virtually the entire urban area and surrounding rural and semi-rural zones. The streets are in a deplorable condition.
A CARE-sponsored project has been working to clean the drainage canals that run along these streets to prevent future flooding and so there are (dangerously) deep gutters running along the major roads. Schools, clinics and public buildings appear to be operating normally. Most were closed for approximately three months after the hurricane and some previously functional health centres and schools have not reopened. Small shops that sell food items, clothing and other such items are busy, but an unknown number of such small enterprises have failed to recover from the hurricane.
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