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Caribbean catastrophe

By Marko Kokic and Alejandra Araúz

Some 2,000 people were killed as a result of mudslides and flooding in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in May. Responding to one of the worst disasters on the island for more than a generation, the local Red Cross, ICRC and the International Federation worked together to bring relief to the victims.

©Marko Kokic / International Federation

Torrential rains led to some of the worst floods in a decade in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The border region between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola, was devastated by water and landslides after ten days of heavy rain in May. A vast river of mud wiped out entire villages, including the Haitian village of Mapou, where officials said hundreds of people perished with another 1,500 reported missing. Another 658 people were killed elsewhere in Haiti. Some 400 people died in the Dominican Republic.

"The rain came," Manie Ceceron, destitute after the devastation in the Haitian town of Fonds Verettes and the loss of her five children, was quoted as saying. "I was in the house and I ran. I couldn't see anything. I didn't see my children. I never saw my children."

The catastrophe hit after rivers swollen by heavy rains burst their banks and surged through settlements, destroying hundreds of houses and sweeping away victims. Some bodies were carried several miles. In other areas, landslides devastated entire communities.

"We had had lots of rain on Sunday. Then, at 3 o'clock on Monday morning, we were caught by surprise by flash floods and landslides," explained Gerald Joseph. "Our whole community is in a state of shock. Where there were once cornfields, there is now a lake. Where there was once a road, there is now a river bed. We simply don't know what to do," he said.

©Marko Kokic / International Federation

Torrential rains led to some of the worst floods in a decade in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Root cause

According to Haiti's prime minister, Gerard Latortue, the cause of the deadly flash floods was the widespread clearing of forest cover. "The deep cause of this situation is the deforestation of Haiti," Latortue said at the summit of European and Latin American leaders in Guadalajara, Mexico.

But deforestation is another symptom of the much deeper problem of poverty that is strangling the people here. Impoverished people cut trees to make charcoal, destroying roots that keep soil in place and leaving the country almost entirely deforested. In Mapou, which is in a valley surrounded by mountains stripped of all forests, the rains created a river of mud and rocks which swept away everything in its path.

"We have lost more than 80 per cent of forest because people use wood charcoal as a source of energy," said Latortue. "We can't go on like this," he added.

©REUTERS / Daniel Morel, Courtesy, www.alertnet.org

Torrential rains led to some of the worst floods in a decade in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Movement response

The International Federation, working through its Pan-American Disaster Response Unit, and the ICRC in Haiti coordinated their efforts with National Societies, particularly the American, French, Netherlands and Spanish Red Cross. Because of the violent events in Haiti earlier in the year, the ICRC already had personnel and facilities in the country. So it coordinated the initial phases of Red Cross response there, handing over direction of the operations to the International Federation once staff and supplies had been sent to the area.

The Red Cross also worked jointly with external agencies such as the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the European Commission's Humanitarian Office, Oxfam, the World Food Programme and the UN Development Programme.

The main humanitarian priorities during the emergency phase were to ensure that people were not living in areas that could be flooded again, the provision of relief and the removal of bodies to make sure that this natural catastrophe was not compounded by a public health disaster. This is still ongoing and will continue for a while yet.

 

 

 

Where there were
once cornfields, there is now a lake.

 

In Haiti, with international aid agencies already active in the flood-hit town of Fonds Verrettes, the Haitian Red Cross, supported by the International Federation and the ICRC, concentrated its efforts on the village of Mapou and the surrounding area.

The Dominican Red Cross activated, among others, their psychological first-aid teams, who arrived quickly in the disaster area, offering support to those who have lost not only their homes, but also their loved ones. The Red Cross also set up a family tracing service in a bid to reunite missing relatives.

Dr Miguel Rivera, national head of volunteers of the Dominican Red Cross, says the performance of the Red Cross teams was highly effective. "Our volunteers were prepared, and so were the branches. They are well trained," he pointed out.


Marko Kokic and Alejandra Araúz
Marko Kokic is International Federation information delegate in Haiti.
Alejandra Araúz is International Federation information officer in Panama.


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