Katrina, Jeanne: Suffering similar but not the same

September 27, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

GONAIVES, HAITI -- The inhabitants of this fourth-largest city in Haiti have a lot in common with the inhabitants of New Orleans, a sort of solidarity that exceeds the French-Creole culture they share.

As New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf of Mexico struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the onset of Hurricane Rita, the people of this city on Haiti's western coast marked the first anniversary of Tropical Storm Jeanne.

It left more than 3,000 dead and missing in its wake, buried the city in mud, destroyed homes and generated an outbreak of civil turmoil among people crazed by the lack of food, shelter and health facilities.

That is not to mention the lack of government assistance at any level. For while Americans may choose among a variety of authorities to blame for the catastrophic consequences of Katrina, here there was no authority to speak of. And here, the catastrophe did not affect poor black people more than others. Practically speaking, there are no others in Gonaives.

Neither was there any advance notice from any monitoring authority that Gonaives was in danger of being flooded. In fact, having gone without rain for a long time, the people in this agricultural heartland sang and danced in the streets when the rain began to fall Sept. 17, 2004, sensing an answer to their prayers.

But the jubilation stopped as the rain kept pouring, bringing a torrent of water and mud and debris down the steep, deforested mountains, wiping out the vast banana plantations and rice paddies that are the town's main resource, crashing into homes and hurtling everything in its surge, including, eventually, the bodies of hapless people and animals.

Father Venel Suffrard, a Catholic priest who is the Gonaives director of Caritas, the humanitarian and relief agency of the Haitian Catholic Church, says that by evening, the water level had reached more than 9 feet, submerging most of the homes in Gonaives. He watched as the detritus of humanity and all it possessed swept by in the massive rush of water and mud.

"There was no government help to prepare for, or to mitigate against, this disaster," he says. "The government declared an emergency, but it did nothing."

Neither did the U.N. troops brought into the country after the latest riddance of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seven months earlier.

As the water began to recede, leaving behind a mass of gunk, the task of collecting the dead began. Father Suffrard went into the streets and began picking up bodies. Noticing some U.N. peacekeepers nearby, he asked them to help, but they responded that it was not part of their mandate.

In the end, Father Suffrard picked up 97 bodies, putting them into his vehicle, sometimes more than a dozen at a time, and carried them into the town morgue.

Soon the business of cleaning up the town and getting food to the people began, still without much help from the government. Relief agencies started bringing in supplies and money to help in the cleanup. Under programs known as cash for work, the people of Gonaives were given tools and paid a little more than $1 a day to start cleaning up. A year later, the cleanup is still under way.

Prucien Jesula, 26, was among those beneficiaries. Even here, she said, they have heard of the storms that have ravaged America's Gulf Coast.

"We feel terrible," she says. "I know their suffering as it is the same as we endured."

Yes and no. More people died here. And a year later, the survivors are still trying to recover, without nearly the global attention that has been heaped upon New Orleans and will be again when the first anniversary of Katrina is marked.

It's not just the American poor who suffer the worst in natural and manmade disasters. The impact on the poorest and most vulnerable is universal. Outside of America, though, they are more familiar with it.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services.

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