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article imageIn Irma's path, Haitians face storm's fury alone

By Amelie BARON (AFP)     Sep 6, 2017 in World

Poor Haitians have been left to face the fury of Hurricane Irma alone as authorities in Cap-Haitien showed little sign Wednesday of preparing for what forecasters say could be a catastrophic event.

Irma, a Category Five storm with 185 mile-an-hour (300 kilometers per hour) winds, is on track to swipe Haiti's northern coast Thursday, but few Haitians in its path have been warned that it's coming.

"It's thanks to word of mouth that we always learn about these things," said Josue Rosse, as he crouched next to a tree trunk that he was digging out to make boat.

"We live on the edge of the sea but no one in authority has come to tell us what's what," he said.

Residents of Shada, a poor community on the banks of the Mapou river, also were surprised to learn that a major storm was headed their way.

"I didn't know a hurricane was coming, because we don't get electricity here, so we can't get the news," said Jacquie Pierre, pointing to a small television set covered with a placemat.

Since the start of the year, the 25-year-old's house has been flooded twice. The prospect of a hurricane terrifies her.

"I am afraid, not just for my life or my children's, but for everyone, for every Haitian. We are like a family," she says, tightly hugging her three-year-old daughter.

Overhearing this, her neighbor Pierre Valmy sticks his head out of his house, a rustic cabin built from wooden planks and metal sheeting.

"If you say a big hurricane is coming here, then it's the end of the world for us," he despaired, turning his gaze to the ground.

- Lack of shelter -

Haitians living on the Mapou River were surprised to learn that Hurricane Irma is headed their way
Haitians living on the Mapou River were surprised to learn that Hurricane Irma is headed their way

The US National Hurricane Center forecasts tropical storm conditions to begin on the north coast of Haiti on Wednesday night, escalating into full-blown hurricane conditions on Thursday.

On the outskirts of Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, the emergency operations center has yet to launch a public information campaign because they are still doing an inventory of available equipment and personnel.

A UN stabilization mission known as Minustah ended in mid-October, and peacekeepers withdrew with the heavy equipment that had been used routinely in responding to seasonal floods in the Cap-Haitien region.

"We no longer have the support of Minustah and there aren't many NGOs involved in risk management in the department, which makes for a difficult situation," said Jean-Henri Petit, the technical coordinator for civil protection in Haiti's Department of the North, of which Cap-Haitien is the capital.

In Port-au-Prince, 120 miles (200 kilometers) from Cap-Haitien, Haiti's civil protection director Jerry Chandler is trying to accelerate the public information campaign and prepositioning of emergency supplies.

"I don't know what is happening," he said. "Since last week, local committees had received instructions to inform the population. We are going to reinforce the media campaign," he said.

In Cap Haitien, fisherman Hilaire Felix blames corruption for the official indifference and massive poverty.

"When something like this happens, they are happy because they've amassed a lot of money. They say they are going to help the poor but no help arrives, ever," he said, emphatically.

More than a million people live in the storm's path, but there are only three ambulances in the whole Department of the North. Gullies and drainage channels are choked with garbage because there is no systematic trash collection.

At the operations center, the dearth of emergency supplies is cruelly evident.

More worrisome still is the lack of shelters. Ninety percent of the houses in Cap-Haitien have sheet metal roofing incapable of withstanding powerful winds.

- 'No place to go' -

A woman walks next to the Mapou River  in Shada neighborhood  in Cap-Haitien  in the north of Haiti ...
A woman walks next to the Mapou River, in Shada neighborhood, in Cap-Haitien, in the north of Haiti, where hurricane preparations have been slow to get started

"We have learned lessons from Matthew and we are going to direct people to shelters for their protection," said Petit, referring to the Category Four storm that ravaged southern Haiti in October last year.

But as there are not enough shelters, the authorities also intend to advise people that their best bet may be to take refuge with family or friends who have houses made of concrete.

On the banks of the Mapou river, residents of Shada feel completely abandoned by the authorities.

"Now that I know a hurricane is approaching, I am going to put my important papers in a plastic sack and tie it to a roof beam because this is my only house and I have no place to go," said Valmy, who has a wife and two children.

Aware that the polluted river that flows a few meters away could sweep him and his family away, Valmy is resigned to whatever may come.

"In life, we all have a place to die," he says, before leaving to play dominos with friends, briefly mentioning to them the prospect of "bad weather" to come.

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