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Between the Hurricanes


When four deadly storms battered Haiti during the last hurricane season, well-prepared volunteers and staff stepped in to save lives.


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 people.

“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 financial crisis. 

Giteau Jean-Pierre, executive officer of the Haitian National Red Cross Society is well aware of the dangers that threaten his country.

“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 adds.

“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 reduction.”

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 emergency food,
water and kitchen utensils at a camp in the town of Cabaret.
©Alejandro Balaguer / International Federation







Volunteer profile

©Jean-Pierre Taschereau / International Federation

Marie-Claude Elie

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.



Alejandro Balaguer
Alejandro Balaguer is a photojournalist and a documentary maker working in Latin America and the Caribbean.



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