After the three terrible hurricanes that devastated Haiti
in 2008 and an arduous relief operation, Marie-Claude Elie
left the emergency areas in Gonaives when she heard the sirens.
The Canadian Red Cross nurse climbed on to the roof of her
hotel and saw a cloud of smoke and dust enveloping the city.
A school had collapsed. On reaching the school, she found
many children and adults buried under rubble, crying for
help. Amid the general panic, Elie remained calm and began
to lead the rescue operation.
“What seems really heroic to me is that she remained
four hours under a very unstable structure, attending to
injured children, in spite of warnings that she was risking
her life,” Jean-Pierre Taschereau, disaster management
delegate with the International Federation’s Pan American
Disaster Response Unit (PADRU), says.
“Until the rescue teams could get there, she devised
a system of tubes to get water to people trapped under the
rubble. She saved the lives of many Haitians that day. She
also set an example for all of us, her colleagues.
“When I asked her if she realized what she had done,
she replied modestly that she had only done the same as all
the people from the Haitian National Red Cross Society who
were there with her. She said that they were the real heroes
of the situation and that all she did was share the experience
with the others,” adds Taschereau.
The case of Marie-Claude Elie and her fellow volunteers
who worked to rescue people highlights not only the Red Cross
Red Crescent spirit of assistance. It also shows the vulnerability
of countries like Haiti, which bear the brunt of nature’s
wrath. Climate change and the extensive deforestation of
woodlands have led to severe soil erosion and the sedimentation
of the river basins in this Caribbean nation of 9 million
“Here in Haiti, it is estimated that more than 90
per cent of tree cover has been destroyed for various reasons — poor
land-use practices, felling trees for firewood to cook, etc.” says
Rafael Olaya, the International Federation’s regional
representative. “The resulting degradation of the land
means that any rain that falls has a more serious impact.
When it rains heavily, as it did during the storms we are
referring to, it is not just croplands that are affected,
whole riverside villages can be swept away.”
In August and September 2008, tropical storm Fay and hurricanes
Gustav, Hanna and Ike swept across the tiny nation. Taschereau
says: “When the island was struck by three hurricanes
in succession, access to affected areas was hampered, bridges
were destroyed, roads swept away and communities left isolated.
As people were beginning to recover from the first hurricane,
along came the second, and then the third. Faced with such
devastation, we had to act fast, deploying over 45 international
staff to support Haitian Red Cross volunteers.
“I flew over Gonaives after Hurricane Hanna and I
could see that over 80 per cent of the area was covered by
water. We began by restoring the supply of safe drinking
water and cleaning wells. We also implemented programmes
to promote community health in shelters, repair houses and
assist displaced people. We were overwhelmed by the sheer
scale of the work to be done,” he says.
As well as killing hundreds of people, the storms devastated
farmland and crops. More than 80 per cent of agricultural
production was lost and the drinking water supply was severely
affected. It is estimated that 30 per cent of banana crops
and 20 per cent of staple crops were destroyed, along with
thousands of cows and fishing boats. The damage put additional
pressure on foodprices, already rising due to the global
Giteau Jean-Pierre, executive officer of the Haitian National
Red Cross Society is well aware of the dangers that threaten
“People in rural areas have lost their livelihoods,
as they can no longer work their plantations, and have been
forced to move to Port-au-Prince. The capital has therefore
seen a great influx of people, adding to hardship and poverty
there,” he says. “Meanwhile, we are providing
medical attention, supporting schools, planning the distribution
of food supplies to people going hungry and providing non-food
items to families who have lost almost everything. We are
also operating two mobile units, one in the south and the
other in the Gonaives region, to provide medical attention
in these areas.”
Jean-Pierre has appealed to the international community
to strengthen the agricultural system, provide provisional
shelters and rebuild schools and hospital facilities. “We
need to implement an intensive programme to assist people,
otherwise we will be seeing thousands of people on the street
and a severe food crisis unprecedented in my country,” he
“The general situation is calmer now and projects
are operating in a climate of cooperation,” says Brigitte
Gaillis, head of International Federation operations to support
the Haitian Red Cross. Furthermore, since December, 10,000
household kits have been donated, 400 people have received
psychological care, 1,500 families have benefited from malaria
prevention, latrines have been constructed for 300 families,
more than 15,000 families have benefited from the supply
of safe drinking water, the homes of 4,000 families have
been rehabilitated and the assistance continues.
However, the experience of Red Cross Red Crescent operations
in Haiti has shown that in the long run every dollar invested
in disaster preparedness will reduce vulnerability and, it
is hoped, spending on emergency response.
Several months after the emergency, Jean-Pierre Taschereau
is back at PADRU headquarters in Panama. Looking back, he
realizes that the improved response to the last hurricanes
was thanks to better planning. “We gained experience
between one hurricane and the next, and we had stocks in
position, we had local volunteers ready to warn communities
about risks so that we could organize preventive evacuation
operations and we had qualified people.
“As a result, fewer human lives were lost. The indisputable
key to this improvement was disaster preparedness and risk
Children displaced by storms in Haiti play at a camp in the town of Cabaret after
Haitian Red Cross volunteers delivered emergency aid there to hundreds of people
who lost their homes.
©Alejandro Balaguer / International Federation
A woman who lost her house in Hurricane Gustav receives
water and kitchen utensils at a camp in the town of Cabaret.
©Alejandro Balaguer / International
Marie-Claude Elie, a nurse with the
Canadian Red Cross Society, worked alongside Haitian
National Red Cross Society staff and volunteers to
help people affected by deadly hurricanes and the
collapse of a school in Gonaives.