In Haiti flood zone, there's worry amid the work
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, Miami Herald, June 15, 2010
GONAIVES -- Two deadly storms in four years sent the Lafortune siblings fleeing from this flood-wrecked city for the safety of the Haitian capital. But then the quake-ruined capital forced them back home.
Now they are bracing for more trouble with the arrival this month of hurricane season.
"I am always asking God, what does he want to do with us?'' said Christeldine Lafortune, 23, eldest of eight siblings, recalling how the cascading waters of Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004 and 2008's Tropical Storm Hanna sent her family to a rooftop as Gonaïves became buried in a rising sea of mud and water.
The Lafortune family, like the tens of thousands of others who returned to Haiti's most flood-prone city after the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, aren't sure if they escaped one disaster, only to await another. Meteorologists are predicting a heightened storm season, which runs until Nov. 30.
Nearly two years after a succession of tropical storms and hurricanes killed almost 800, left hundreds of thousands homeless and caused $1 billion in damage to roads, bridges and irrigation systems over a span of 30 days, Gonaïves remains a basin of disaster.
"All this time they've been working on the city, and all they've done is reduce the mud,'' said an angry Anne Lafortune, 67, the children's grandmother. "If they don't work on the ravines that carry the water from the top of the mountains and into the La Quinte River, and we don't do proper drainage, the water will always be a threat to us.''
Improvements have been slow in Gonaïves, a city in the fertile Artibonite Valley, now home to an estimated 40,000 quake-victims after the magnitude 7.0-earthquake shook Port-au-Prince and left a government-estimated 300,000 dead. Most of the 2.5 million cubic meters of mud that once engulfed the city is gone, removed by government dump trucks, but the streets are now choked with dust.
Along a partially concrete-paved 1.2-mile stretch of Route National 1 inside the city, it's a chaotic dance of honking motorcycle taxis and trucks cruising the paved concrete as workers along the unpaved stretch work on a drainage ditch.
Several flood-prone neighborhood streets now boast 4.8 miles of U.S. taxpayer-funded paved concrete built by the International Organization for Migration, known as IOM. The agency also built a new hurricane shelter and constructed or rehabilitated 26 schools in Gonaïves, relocating them to higher ground or adding second floors with terraces so they can double as hurricane shelters.
Agriculture Minister Joanas Gué, who is overseeing much of the infrastructure repairs on behalf of the Haitian government, said the work is focused on unclogging and connecting the many canals and drains running through Gonaïves. Other work includes reinforcing the right river banks of the La Quinte River, as well as dredging and enlarging portions of it.
"The challenge today is not controlling the water once it reaches Gonaïves, but to control it before it reaches.''
Some 60 percent of the water that floods Gonaïves -- and help led to the deaths of 3,000 people during 2004's Jeanne -- came from La Quinte, which has five rivers and eight watersheds that feed into it. Gué concedes that the ongoing work, including redirecting water from a major ravine, will ensure some protection, but not the end of deadly floods or mudslides.
U.S. officials, who recently took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide technical and environmental impact evaluations, say Gonaïves' flood-control needs far exceeds the $22 million in investments that have been planned since 2008. The U.S. military has set up a base camp about a half-mile outside of Gonaïves in the city in Mandrin. National Guard units began arriving on Saturday.
Over the course of the next four months, there will be at least 500 reservists on the site who will have access to helicopters -- if need be -- while building several new schools, a community center and clinic and repairing a water well.
Gué said most of the ongoing work is Haitian-government financed, to the tune of about $4 million. The work, he said, was delayed because of lack of funding and the quake, which forced the government's construction company, CNE, to redirect most of its equipment and focus to the quake-hit areas.
Aware of the U.S. concerns and others, Gué said he's discussing with a group of experts from the University of Massachusetts about constructing dams along La Quinte to reduce flooding. Meanwhile, Haiti will need $2 billion over the next 10 years to shore up the surrounding deforested hillsides.
In the outskirts, hundreds of IOM-employed peasants have spent the past months bringing a barren mountain in Savanne Panyol back to life by building rock walls to prevent flooding.
"A project like this, it sets an example,'' said Drew Kutschenreuter, IOM program officer in Gonaïves. ``There is noting going into Gonaïves and the farmers get to keep their gardens.''
But serious threats remain, Gué and Gonaïves Sen. Youri Latortue say.
"The new menace is the mountains, and the houses on them,'' said Latortue, who recently led a government effort to provide nine acres of land for an Irish foundation, Haven, to build 144 houses on safer land for hurricane victims.
Gué said the hillside homes, which also includes several built by South Florida-based Food For the Poor, pose a huge threat because they are built on soil that is unstable and vulnerable to landslides.
"The way they were constructed, they don't respect any construction norms. They don't have any kind of drainage system that connects them with another drain in the middle of the city,'' he said.
Food for the Poor defended its homes, saying many have sought refuge in them during storms.
"Our homes are built with poured cement foundations, concrete block construction with rebar reinforcement. They have corrugated zinc roofs,'' spokeswoman Kathy Skipper said. ``The homes are built on a solid foundation of rock with no danger of landslides.''
Gué says he understands the theory behind living on the hillside -- that is where many ran for safety in both 2004 and 2008.
Hills and rooftops might be needed again. Forecasters predict 15 to 18 named storms. Christeldine, who still yearns for the capital where she was attending school, says she doesn't know what to do.
The children's parents live in Canada, and they haven't seen them for 12 years. They are living with an aunt, and though foreigners have come to do a census on the family, Christeldine and her grandmother say they've yet to receive any kind of assistance.
Even as they worry about hurricane season, they know they are among the lucky ones. Everyone made it out of the Port-au-Prince house alive after the quake hit.
Sitting in their aunt's yard recently, they entered a now familiar debate in this hurricane-vulnerable city, which felt the ground rattle Jan. 12 but was spared the destruction, on which is worse: floods or quake.
Christeldine is afraid of water, she says. Then her grandmother chimes in.
"The earthquake is worse,'' Anne Lafortune said. ``People who can swim, can swim themselves to safety with the floods. With the earthquake, you can't run. You run, you can still die. You stand, you can still die.''
"I ran, I didn't die,'' Christeldine said to a chorus of giggles from her younger siblings.
"It wasn't your time,'' said her grandmother.