As another hurricane season approaches, people in Haiti are still digging out from a devastating series of storms last summer and fall. The storms of 2008 brought massive flooding and mudslides that killed about 800 people and left more than 100,000 homeless.
Among the hardest hit was the port city of Gonaives, where houses and streets were covered by mud and debris in heaps up to 9 feet high. With the help of international aid, people are in a race to clean out the city's canals so that the coming rains will be less likely to produce more devastating floods this year. The official start of hurricane season is June 1.
Deadly Mudslides Buried Parts Of City
Tropical Storm Fay and hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike swept across Haiti last August and September. The torrents of rain melted the mountainsides and engulfed Gonaives, a city of about 200,000.
Waves of mud buried people, animals and cars and filled houses to the rafters. Even after the water receded, the mud remained, entombing whole neighborhoods.
Slowly, by the shovelful, the soil and debris from the mudslides is being removed from Gonaives and piled near the outskirts of the city in a wasteland that stretches for acres.
United Nations officials estimate that about 1.8 million metric tons of mud and debris have already been moved, with about 200,000 tons yet to go.
About 60 percent of the city has been cleared, says Jean-Pierre Mambounou, local director for the U.N. World Food Program. He also coordinates relief work with other groups in the area, including the Red Cross and CARE.
"This area was completely under water and mud," he says, gesturing to a busy street. Roadside vendors hawk their wares amid the dust churned up by dozens of dump trucks hauling dirt out of the city.
Food Aid Helps Pay For The Cleanup
Mambounou, a native of Congo-Brazzaville, has worked for the WFP for 14 years, responding to disasters and wars in places such as Rwanda. He arrived in Gonaives just after the storms that left much of the city encased in mud.
Asifa, one of Gonaives' low-lying neighborhoods, resembles a busy archaeological site, as if the residents of Pompeii had come back to life to excavate their own city. Dirt removed from houses still fills many streets. Narrow pathways wind through piles of debris that tower higher than people's heads.
Coordinator Dieupere Fleur stands amid a crowd of people who are waiting to sign up for a program that pays them in food while they work to shovel mud from their houses and yards. The program also provides extra workers when they are needed to help families. Workers in this neighborhood have cleaned about 400 dwellings so far, Fleur says.
Cleaning Houses Is Not Enough
Fleur and Mambounou trudge through streets where homeowners are dumping wheelbarrows full of debris. Some neighborhood women call out to them in Creole, "Hey, the rice is good, but you need to give us some beans, too."
Fleur says this particular project is designed to help about 12,600 people in the immediate area. So far, he says, it has reached about 8,000.
He notes that cleaning out a mud-crusted house doesn't always mean a family can move back into its home. The mud and floodwaters smashed doors and shutters. Until those repairs are made, houses can't be secured to protect any personal possessions from theft. Many people are still living with relatives on higher ground, or in tents put up by relief organizations, he says.
The floods also wiped out many small businesses — food and clothing vendors, charcoal sellers and motorcycle mechanics — so common to Haitian neighborhood life. Anton Nozil operated a small Internet cafe, where people went to make phone calls or send e-mail messages to relatives in the U.S. Now, only the sign remains.
Nozil hopes there will be a way to start up again. "You can see a small business like this is of use to people here. It didn't bring a lot of money, but it was worth something," he says.
The Underlying Problem Remains
Mountains surround Gonaives. They were the source of the mud that caused so much damage and hardship. Most of the mountains are nearly white, with limestone exposed and eroding.
"The mountains, the hills around Gonaives, you can see they are completely barren. Whenever it rains, rainwater and the mud come down to the city. That's a problem," Mambounou says.
The mountains were stripped of their trees years ago by desperate people who needed charcoal for cooking fuel. Heavy rains then washed off the topsoil.
Haiti's rainy season usually begins in May, but Mambounou says the city hasn't seen much rain yet. He thinks Gonaives is likely to survive drenching rains better then it did last fall, because key drainage canals have been cleared.
But Gonaives doesn't have long to finish its cleanup. The hurricane season begins next month, and for Haiti, it usually brings its fiercest storms by September.