March 3, 2006

Floodwater gone but fear remains in Haiti’s Gonaives

By Jim Loney

GONAIVES, Haiti (Reuters) - Along the banks of Haiti's now
bone-dry La Quinte river, tiny concrete-block homes have
replaced mud huts swept away by Tropical Storm Jeanne's floods
17 months ago. But the memories and the fears remain.

"The water was so high it killed some people over by the
mango tree," said Rosemene Ullysee Assad, who lives about 50
yards from the La Quinte river bed. "It was up to the top of
the house and we were all in the tree, 10 or 15 people in the

More than 3,000 people died in and around Haiti's
third-largest city, Gonaives, when Jeanne's rains swelled
rivers and sent torrents of mud from barren hillsides into the
streets. Just four months after another flood in southern Haiti
also killed nearly 3,000, Jeanne overwhelmed the impoverished
Caribbean country.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Societies and other humanitarian groups launched appeals for
money to feed tens of thousands in one of the world's poorest
countries. Aid workers descended on Gonaives to pull the city
from the mud.

Since the September 2004 disaster, CARE and other groups
have plowed 64,000 cubic yards (meters) of debris from the
streets and built or rehabilitated more than 6 miles of canals
in the vulnerable city of 200,000, officials said.

Still, Assad and her neighbors harbor fears of a repeat.
More work needs to be done on the city's defenses, and
residents hope that the February 7 election of President Rene
Preval will bring political stability and increase the flow of
aid money.

"Every time it rains, these people get out of their houses
and move away from the river," said Jouthe Joseph, a regional
administrator for CARE.

Gonaives, a tough port city only 100 miles north of Haiti's
capital but four bone-jarring hours along a rocky, cratered
national highway, was the birthplace of the bloody revolt that
forced ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of the National
Palace in February 2004.


Just seven months after the rebellion, Jeanne compounded
Haiti's misery. Although it swept north of Hispaniola, the
Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic,
the storm's heavy rains saturated vulnerable hillsides cleared
of trees by impoverished Haitians desperate for cooking fuel.

Mudslides swamped Gonaives and surrounding towns. At the
two-story Chachou Hotel in the center of the city, water
reached the roof.

Corn, bananas, beans and other crops were wiped out,
leaving farmers without food or seed.

The poverty that stalks the vast majority of Haitians --
average annual income is about $390 -- reached crisis
proportions. Aid groups scrambled to feed tens of thousands of
homeless Gonaives residents.

The city's dust-choked streets have long been cleared of
the mud and the emergency feeding programs have wound down. But
the pain of the flood lingers.

"Life will never be back to normal because I don't have any
place to live and we lost everything," said Assad, 34, as she
breast-fed her 3-month-old daughter, Ludina. "Before we used to
live day by day, but now it's worse. I don't know where to get
food for the children."

Assad's mud hut was no match for the floods of Jeanne. She
had to move her eight children into her mother's home nearby,
which they share with six relatives.

On the banks of the La Quinte, many of the tiny houses have
walls constructed of hard-packed mud fortified by sticks. With
no electricity or running water, residents use candles or oil
lamps at night and carry water in buckets from streams.

Aid organizations built about 50 4.3-6.5-yard (4-by-6
meter) concrete-block buildings, at a cost of about $1,000
each, to replace some of the destroyed mud homes. Scattered
along the riverbank, they are jokingly referred to as "Cite

But the contractors told residents not to stay inside the
simple structures during high winds, Joseph said.

A $22 million program funded by the U.S. Agency for
International Development paid for a revamped canal system
designed to help save Gonaives from a repeat of Jeanne. Along a
stretch of the La Quinte near Assad's home, workers spent five
months meticulously building 260 feet of sturdy riverbank by
piling rock, four tiers high, behind wire mesh.

Tons of garbage -- along with the bodies of some lost storm
victims -- were scooped from canals that had not been cleaned
in 20 years. The debris was a critical factor in the flood.

"It's better now. I have seen how the canals react in a
heavy rain," Joseph said. "If Jeanne came back, it would be
better but we would still have problems."

Donor nations pledged $1.3 billion to Haiti after
Aristide's departure but only about 45 percent has been
disbursed. Joseph said Gonaives needs another $22 million to
complete the canal work. Residents have pleaded with CARE to
return to finish the job.

"We don't feel safe, even with all the work done on the
river. We had some rain but not as much rain as Jeanne," said
Dorilien Liberis, a wiry farmer who at 54 has already surpassed
Haiti's life expectancy of 53, the lowest in the Americas.

"But this is the only land we have, so we have no choice.
We have to stay. We have nowhere to go."