Hurricanes and Haiti

The expression “sheets of rain” meant nothing to me until I lived in Haiti. I used to sit on a terrace on a low hillside in Port-au-Prince and watch the progress of rainstorms as they descended on the capital. The city sat below me, palms waving in the ominous, wet breeze, tin roofs glinting in a slanting sun, jitneys honking through the traffic, roosters crowing at the wrong time of day. Above us, there would be a quick massing of clouds. Then, suddenly, the rain would come pounding down and the city would disappear, as if a shade had been lowered at the edge of the terrace. Sometimes it would rain like that for hours, and when the storm lifted and moved on, there was a rushing river where my street had been. Cars had washed to the bottom of the hill. Bodies floated out of shallow graves in the National Cemetery. Whole communities in the hillside slum near my house would be wrecked.

Human poverty is hugely susceptible to nature’s depredations, and Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, has again and again been the victim of demonically destructive wind, rain and flood.

In Texas at the end of the week, and in Louisiana two weeks ago, mandatory evacuations moved thousands out of harm’s way from this season’s storms. In Cuba, a system of shelters and evacuations overseen by security forces saved countless lives -- only four people have been reported killed. In Haiti, there has been no such orderly exodus, and nearly two weeks after Hanna, which was the worst of the storms in Haiti, starving families were still trying to flee through mud and water, past the bodies of dead cattle and men, to higher ground.

According to varying estimates, this last month’s four powerful storms have killed about 300 people in Haiti or as many as a 1,000 -- authorities now say they have given up counting -- and have made about 1 million people homeless, in a country of 7 million. In May, before the hurricane season even started, flash floods killed 2,000. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne killed about 3,000 Haitians, many of them in Gonaives, a flatland, waterside city hard hit once again in this year’s spate of Atlantic storms. In 1963, Hurricane Flora killed more than 8,000. This year’s storms have come at the worst possible moment in Haiti’s agricultural calendar -- destroying most of the country’s crops and drowning or starving thousands of animals.

In the developed world, such vulnerability would lead quickly to measures for the public safety. But Haitians cannot expect that their right to what Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician who has worked there for more than two decades, calls “protection from the foreseeable” will be respected. At least, after Hurricane Katrina, the levees in New Orleans were rebuilt and raised. In Haiti, there are no levees.

There are pretty clear reasons why Haiti’s hurricanes are so devastating. Most Haitians live in precarious places. In Port-au-Prince, the few who are rich tend to live at the top of high hills, which is generally the safest ground. But one of the few ways to make money in Haiti is to serve the rich. So just below the high enclaves of the wealthy, on the slopes leading up to peaks, on dangerous and shifting ground, shantytowns filled with nannies, housekeepers, gatesmen, supermarket-bundle-carriers, dishwashers, drivers, go-fers, gardeners, tinkerers, handymen and pool men have appeared and metastasized in slapdash fashion, with no municipal or governmental codes or control.

The rest of Haiti’s poor live in flatlands near the water, doing odd jobs or crafts or working in the sprawling open-air markets in the cities, or doing farm work in the country’s one fertile valley. How your life is destroyed in a storm in Haiti depends on the angle of your shantytown or village. If you live in the flatlands, you will be inundated by rain and mud; if you live on a little incline or a hill, you’ll be washed away.

Most houses in Haiti don’t have much in the way of foundations. At best, they may have a post or two driven into the ground. In La Saline, the slum where I spent most of my reporting time in Port-au-Prince, houses are for the most part nothing more than a patchwork, cobbled together from cast-off corrugated tin, oil drums hammered flat and other pieces of found metal and wood, with cardboard filling in the gaps. The floors are dirt. The door’s an old sheet during the day; at night a piece of metal is shut over the opening and fastened with twine.

These houses can fool the sun but they can’t fool the rain, as the expression goes in Haiti. They fall down in a strong storm and pile up against cement walls here and there, in their original pieces, like refuse. When the sun eventually dries everything out again, and drought replaces rain, people come to collect the bits that are left and, piling cardboard and tin on their heads, trudge off to rebuild their shantytown so it can be knocked down again in the next storm.

The topography doesn’t help. Haiti is essentially a big mountain range with a precipitous run down to a narrow coastline, so gravity does a lot of a storm’s destructive work. So does the island’s deforestation. Trees tend to keep soil in place with their root systems; without them, the slightest rains can loosen the topsoil. Big storms send tons of it down the mountainsides toward the coast like a big brown frappe. (This does double damage because it removes soil for future planting, as well as creating mudslides.)

The reason Haiti has no trees, or very few, is its utter poverty. Haitians don’t have much in the way of jobs (more than two-thirds of the population is unemployed), so they don’t have money to pay for gas or oil for electricity or cooking. Instead, they cut down trees and turn them into charcoal. In one deforested, charcoal-producing area, I saw medieval-style cookers buried in the ground, turning wood into fuel and sending up pungent smoke into the bleak landscape. In the towns, ladies sell huge black bags of charcoal, and everyone who works at the charcoal markets is covered in black dust from the destruction of Haiti’s forests.

Meanwhile, the governments of Haiti, both the dictatorships and the democracies, have done almost nothing to stop deforestation or to protect Haitians from the next big storm. There is no enforced national policy concerning cutting down trees. There is no special tax levied on the charcoal ladies. There is no national or municipal evacuation plan or shelter system.

Haiti has long been a privatized economy, a place where the state functions largely as a kleptocracy. This is one place where Ronald Reagan’s fantasy of a truly privatized economy actually exists. The schools are privately run, so they cost too much and teach almost nothing. Sanitation is privatized: Trash gets collected regularly among the rich but not in the shantytowns. Medical care is privatized: The rich get good care, the poor pay steep prices for old medicines. Public transportation is privatized: That’s why most Haitians walk and carry their goods on their heads. And nothing, but nothing, is regulated.

For the last four months, the useless Haitian Parliament has quarreled endlessly about a new prime minister. The last one, Jacques-Edouard Alexis, resigned in April after food riots shook the country. After unimaginable dickering, Michele Pierre-Louis, a respected economist and activist, was installed as prime minister on Sept. 6, amid the hurricanes. At the end of last week, she had still been unable to get on the ground to survey the situation in Gonaives, although a handful of indomitable aid workers did get in. With their country starving and waterlogged, Haitian officials commented with typically surreal understatement that Haiti ought to have better construction guidelines and that the country needs a civil defense force.

Poverty makes it hard to construct protections from the foreseeable, it’s true, but the Haitian people deserve better from their government.

Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” and other books.