By Jacqueline Charles & Michael Chang, Miami Herald, Oct. 5, 2016
Haitian elections officials postponed Sunday’s rerun presidential and legislative elections for the second time this year, saying they had yet to assess the extent of damage from Hurricane Matthew, which left at least five people dead and hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes.
The country’s Provisional Electoral Council did not provide a new date for elections following the announcement Wednesday, the same day that Haitian National Police and a United Nations logistics team were scheduled to begin moving ballots and other materials to voting centers.
“The passage of the hurricane has provoked a certain amount of damage,” said CEP President Leopold Berlanger. “The arrival of the hurricane has created delays ... like the deployment of materials by the Haitian National Police.”
In January,Haiti postponed a scheduled second round of elections amid protests and opposition following frontrunner Jude Celestin’s declaration that he would not campaign until government officials addressed fraud allegations from the contested first round on Oct. 25.
“It’s a wise decision,” Celestin said. “Getting assistance to the population is more important than elections right now. It’s difficult to go ask people to go vote, given what we’re dealing with right now. But elections are important. I hope that the CEP announces a new date as soon as possible so that regardless of the conditions, there is a new president who takes office in Haiti on Feb 7.”
The U.S. State Department said the decision is Haiti’s alone, but that the Obama administration hopes the rerun elections are held soon.
“Our interest is that they do have elections, whether they’re Sunday or some other point in the not-too-distant future,” said Kenneth Merten, Haiti special coordinator and Western Hemisphere affairs deputy assistant secretary. “That they have elections soon, and that they have elections that are fair, transparent and credible.”
A mechanical engineer, Celestin was in Petit-Goâve with a construction team evaluating a collapsed bridge that made it impossible to move ballots to the southern parts of Haiti. The road is impassable, cutting off the capital from the hard-hit southern peninsula.
Across Port-au-Prince, in the fishing village of Luly on Haiti’s Arcadian Coast, some residents also welcomed the decision.
“These are difficult times,” said Gerald Dumay, one of dozens of fishermen who lost their livelihoods when Matthew tore apart their canoes. “I want to vote and I was ready to vote, but elections won’t work right now.”
Haiti’s other presidential candidates have yet to respond to the decision, notably Jovenel Moise, who finished first in last year's controversial Oct. 25 vote. Moise criticized the interim government’s initial decision to redo that election based on a review of votes by an evaluation commission.
Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, opposition candidate Moise Jean-Charles called on Berlanger to provide “a fixed date,” for the rerun election.
On Wednesday, the Organization of American States met to address Matthew’s toll in Haiti and how to coordinate relief efforts among member countries.OAS elections observers arrived in Haiti in September to observe the repeatedly delayed election.
Gerardo Icaza, director of the OAS’ department of electoral cooperation and observation, said the hemispheric body agrees with the postponement and hopes for a quick recovery.
“We lament the human loss and that people have lost their homes, properties and have been displaced,” he said.
Juan Raul Ferreira, the head of the OAS’ Electoral Observation Mission, said their 125 observers will be ready to support the vote “when the relevant authorities decide they are ready to hold elections.”
Berlanger said a new date could come by Wednesday of next week. The elections body, he said, needs to evaluate the damage and assess their ability to transport voting materials to the hardest hit areas.
In response to the delay, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is running for re-election, issued a statement calling the postponement “justifiable” but urging a rapid return to the polls for Haitians.
“It cannot be used as an excuse to perpetually postpone it and further undermine the democratic process there,” Rubio said. “We need effective U.S. leadership on the humanitarian response for all the obvious human reasons, but also so this election can be rescheduled as soon as possible and the Haitian people can choose leaders that can address the many challenges facing their country.”
Haiti's interim President Jocelerme Privert boarded a U.S. Coast Guard plane Wednesday afternoon to conduct an aerial survey of the southern peninsula. The country's two international airports reopened Wednesday morning.
As the storm entered the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, headed for the Bahamas, the extent of damage in Haiti began to come into focus for international relief workers on the battered island. Especially hard hit were communities along Haiti's southern peninsula.
At least five people were confirmed dead and 10 injured due to Matthew, the Office of Civil Protection reported on Wednesday morning.
Spokesman Edgar Celestin said officials were completing an assessment of the storm’s impact, especially in the Grand’ Anse department, whose residents are isolated without cellphone service. Matthew knocked out communications throughout the southern coast of Haiti and forced the closure of the airport in Port-au-Prince, U.S. disaster relief workers on the island said Wednesday.
At least 1,855 homes were flooded, affecting about 2,700 families, officials said, as the number of people evacuating to shelters rose from 9,000 to 15,623.
“Most of the area has been hit pretty hard,” said R. David Harden, an assistant administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development, while speaking with reporters on teleconference Wednesday. “Communications are down in most of the affected areas. The airport is not open.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conveyed his solidarity Wednesday with the people and governments of Haiti, Cuba and other nations in the Caribbean affected by Hurricane Matthew.
“In Haiti, the government reports that a number of people have lost their lives and estimates that at least 350,000 people need immediate assistance,” he said in a statement.
He said a U.N. assessment team is working with partners in Haiti to coordinate rapid assessments, with logistical assistance from the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
In Cuba, more than 377,000 people were evacuated while 1,640 metric tons of food were positioned in safe areas, Ban said, lauding Cuban officials for their preparedness efforts.
Harden said U.S. disaster relief workers planned to assess Matthew’s damage in Haiti by air Wednesday, after weather conditions improve.
“Once the storm has fully passed, we’ll be able to do a better assessment on mudslides, road conditions and the state of vulnerable people,” he said.
U.S. AID had deployed more than two dozen disaster response workers to Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas before Tuesday, and positioned food, hygiene materials and water purification systems in strategic locations in preparation for the storm.
Harden said the agency’s humanitarian assistance for regional hurricane relief in the region totals $1.5 million worth of aid, including $1 million announced Wednesday to provide food vouchers and rations, cash transfers, and meals at evacuation shelters.
About $500,000 will go to international efforts in Haiti, Jamaica, and the Bahamas to provide logistics support and distribute relief supplies, such as drinking water, hygiene kits, emergency shelter materials, blankets, and household goods.
“I would say that represents a robust engagement, given where we are at this time,” Harden said. “I mean our assessments haven’t even come back, and what we’re doing now is simply trying to save lives.”
Harden said Matthew dumped 15 to 25 inches of rain in Haiti, and that officials there were wary of preventing an outbreak of cholera, which bedeviled the country after the earthquake in January 2010.
“A lot of our assistance is going to focus on water and sanitation, which is probably the most effective means to inhibit the spread of cholera,” Harden said.
Though the State Department issued travel warnings for U.S. citizens in Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas, American embassies in the Caribbean remained staffed, said Merten, the Haiti special coordinator.
“We have not evacuated embassy personnel at any of our embassies,” Merten said. “What we have done, though, is authorized what we call authorized departure, which allows employees and families to leave via commercial airlines. That has been offered to employees at Kingston, Nassau and Port-au-Prince.
“Some folks have departed,” he added, “but chiefs of missions remain in each country.”
At the White House, President Obama urged Americans to keep in mind that one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti, which is already suffering from a range of previous disasters, has been hit “really hard by this storm.”
“We anticipate that they’re going to need substantial help,” Obama said.
He encouraged U.S. citizens to consider helping those “who didn’t have a lot to begin with and our now getting hammered by this storm.” Those willing could get more information by visiting the Center for International Disaster Information at CIDI.org.
Obama, who met with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Guard, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, reminded Americans that Matthew is now barreling toward Florida.
The storm has been reported as the most powerful to hit the region in almost a decade, and it could pick up strength. Florida could start feeling effects tomorrow.
Hurricane Matthew: Haiti death toll nears 900 as devastation sparks mass appeal
Posted Oct. 8, 2016