Thrice-built house embodies Haiti aid shortfalls

By: AP
By: AP

GONAIVES, Haiti – The farmer camps in a crude tent of broken sandbags as he guards the foundation of his destroyed home and his last possessions: a pickax, a hoe and some charcoal.

This is the third time Olisten Elerius is preparing to build his tiny cinderblock house. Four years ago, Tropical Storm Jeanne flooded it and drowned his father, sister and nephew. Then, late this summer, Tropical Storm Hanna swallowed it along with his daughter and another sister. It could happen again.

After Jeanne struck in 2004, more than $70 million in aid went to immediate relief such as food, medical aid and jobs, but little went to flood control, according to an Associated Press review of relief spending. Despite pledges to prevent such devastation in the future, few projects to build drains, fix roads and stop erosion were even attempted.

In other parts of Haiti, U.S. officials launched an ambitious flood control project. But it took 3 1/2 years to plan and was not placed in Gonaives because of a lack of funding.

So when four major storms hit within a month this year, nothing stopped the La Quinte River from roaring over its banks again. It inundated farmers like Elerius on its way to the center of Gonaives, where men, women and children swam for miles through swirling waters to escape. The storms killed 793 people and caused $1 billion in damage.

"The authorities were always coming here to take pictures and measure things," Elerius said. "The words in their mouths said they would help, but they never did anything."

Top officials agree that efforts fell short.

"I think we were very successful in getting Gonaives back on its feet," Alexandre Deprez, an official for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said of the work after Jeanne. "But it is true that we didn't put the time and the resources to do what needs to be done in the longer term."

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Haiti's floods are not natural disasters, but a direct result of widespread deforestation, erosion and poverty. Farmers cut trees for charcoal and plant shallow-rooted crops. Rains that would be forgotten elsewhere can kill thousands.

In 2004, Elerius was working in the neighboring Dominican Republic when Tropical Storm Jeanne came twisting like a wounded animal out of the northern sky, sending a wall of water through his cinderblock home and sweeping away his father, sister and nephew. Gonaives residents fled to their rooftops as rivers broke their banks, overflowing morgues with bloated corpses.

A horrified world pledged to help. Elerius returned home just as the money and the white SUVs of non-governmental organizations began flowing into Gonaives, in the north of Haiti.

The U.N. appealed for $37 million in flood relief. Washington would donate more than $45 million, first for emergency food and supplies and then through USAID for the two-year, $34 million Tropical Storm Jeanne Recovery Program.

Disaster officials, newspapers and aid workers called for well-planned, well-financed, long-term aid. Haitian officials told the agencies to spend the money on projects that would save lives: secure rivers, fix roads, design better canals, build homes with better drainage to the sea.

But the U.N. member states, distracted by the Indian Ocean tsunami four months later, raised less than half their funding target.

Work was hampered by violence and insecurity. The Inter-American Development Bank provided about $10 million in loans, mostly for construction of a small drainage system. That project was abandoned by Haitian contractors after bandits stole the cement and steel, IDB representative Philippe Dewez said.

Washington sent money mostly for short-term projects: cleanup, restoration and repair of basic services such as schools, health clinics, roads, bridges and homes. In 2005, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that U.S. organizations cleared more than 2 million cubic feet of mud and restored the livelihoods of 48,000 people. But the GAO said they failed to meet an already reduced target for houses and completed no roads or bridges.

Elerius rebuilt his family's flimsy home at Mapou, a flat plain on the outskirts of the city, just 50 feet from the La Quinte River after it descends from barren mountains toward the sea.

On the denuded hillside, USAID said projects to grow plant cover and build terraces have restored 3,700 acres of the La Quinte watershed — 2 percent of the basin. But few trees are visible, and local officials said most saplings were eaten by goats.

Corruption watchdogs with Transparency International said public funds — nobody seems to know exactly how much — were distributed with little oversight by the U.S.-backed interim government.

Soon after Jeanne, USAID commissioned a study of Haiti's watersheds, which led to an ambitious $18 million effort to reduce flooding. Work did not begin until February 2008.

The report recommended action in high-risk flood areas, including Gonaives. But the U.S. Congress only gave enough money for the agency to start in two smaller, less populated watersheds — Limbe in the north and Mountrouis in the west, both more than 40 miles away from Gonaives. Some money went to a project on a Port-au-Prince river this year.

"With the funding that we were given we said to ourselves, 'Why go into a place where you're not going to make a difference?' " Deprez told The Associated Press. "Go into a place where you can focus and make a difference and test the approach that was recommended."

It will take five years to know the effects of the pilot flood-control programs. Officials then hope to replicate them elsewhere.

But the storms didn't wait.

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Starting in mid-August, Tropical Storm Fay hit Haiti, followed by Gustav, Hanna and Ike. They destroyed thousands of homes, devastated crops and set the country back decades. Starving families, whose plight had fueled April riots, got even hungrier.

On the dark afternoon of Sept. 2 in Gonaives, there was no warning as mountain run-off began to gather in ravines. Officials were not given orders to evacuate, and in any case no plan was in place. There was nobody to clear fallen trees that had jammed a bridge on the La Quinte River and caused it to divert the day before.

Elerius was in town getting supplies when he heard radio reports about a new storm. Even as rain fell in Gonaives, radio broadcasts in Port-Au-Prince, the capital, repeated predictions that it would veer to the north, away from Haiti.

It was only word of mouth that sent Elerius running home. There he found the river had again become an ocean, his family submerged and his house disintegrating.

He dived into the water and pulled his mother and 4-year-old son Jonslay to safety. Then he yelled for his 6-year-old daughter, Joniska, and his 21-year-old little sister, Jimele.

Neither called back.

This time, without a network of roads that could withstand the flooding, Gonaives was trapped. A Haitian-funded causeway needed to connect it to the capital, 80 miles away across the cactus plain of Savanne Desolee, was left half-finished, denying scores of families a way out. Refugees climbed its scaffolding to escape the rising waters.

Others were stranded on their rooftops. It took four days for the U.N. to bring in ample food aid by ship.

Some development workers say the reduced death toll this year — in the hundreds instead of thousands — validates their efforts. But survivors and local officials say more survived this time because the memory of Jeanne sent them running for higher ground.

Today in Gonaives, homeless families crowd tent neighborhoods. Men scrounge for fish in stagnant floodwaters. Schoolgirls wear sunglasses and surgical masks to block the clouds of dirt that cover the city. The road to Port-au-Prince is still blocked by an enormous lake.

As former Gonaives disaster management coordinator Faustin Joseph said, "Everybody failed."

The craggy roads of Gonaives are filled again with white SUVs. The U.N. issued a $107 million appeal, of which it has raised about half, and is now requesting $20 million more. The World Food Program has delivered more than 11,000 tons of food. The Haitian government has set aside $198 million for rebuilding roads, fortifying river beds and restoring agriculture.

The U.S. government pledged more than $30 million in immediate relief. Another $96 million from Congress is on its way.

President Rene Preval told the U.N. General Assembly in September he feared that "once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left as always, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see restarted, as if in a ritual, the same exercises of mobilization."

Some in Gonaives have become restless.

"If things go like they did after Jeanne again, and it looks like people are doing nothing, we might get up and start burning things down," said Odrigue Toussaint, 40, who has not worked since he lost his motorcycle to Hanna. "We will let the authorities know it can't happen again."

Elerius sent his son, mother and siblings to live with neighbors. He never found the bodies of his sister and daughter.

He sleeps on the dirty ground under the plastic tent. Inside it's stiflingly hot during the day but cooler at night.

The La Quinte River gouged a shallow canyon through what was once his farmland, where he planted onions, plantains and potatoes. The topsoil washed to the streets of Gonaives, encasing the city in mud.

Haitian construction crews put the river back into its bed a week after Hanna, just as they did after Jeanne, and built temporary levies with gravel and sandbags that Elerius pilfered to make his tent. The bags were falling apart anyway, he said.

The farmer who keeps losing everything is resigned.

"Whatever they do now we'll accept it," Elerius said. "I just wish they would have already done more."


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