Four months after Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti, Meghna Manaktala visits the communities that were affected to better understand the reason for the widespread devastation, and how the work of young volunteers has helped communities cope with the crisis.
As I drive through Les Cayes on the way to Port Salut – one of the areas most affected by the hurricane– I witness the remnants of the havoc caused by the storm. Trees lie uprooted; homes that had their roofs and walls blown away by the strong winds have been patched up using scraps of metal sheets salvaged from the wreckage, or not at all.
Crops have been destroyed, and with them, people’s means of eking out their poor living. Even the hills bear witness to the destruction – as Rulx, the IDEJEN Programme Coordinator puts it, “they look like they’ve been ravaged by fire,” so bare are they, the few trees and shrubs stripped by the hurricane-force winds.
Haiti is a country where hazardous geographical location, extreme environmental degradation and increasing impact of climate change make a deadly combination. Add extreme poverty and weak government policy, and the consequences are disastrous.
When Hurricane Matthew hit, the deforested coastline, caused by logging to produce charcoal and the lack of law enforcement in place, offered next to no resistance against the winds. Poor quality houses, in which the most vulnerable lived, had little chance of surviving. Perhaps worst of all, people living in areas most likely to be affected were not even offered the opportunity to escape – they had no prior warning, and didn’t know where they could go to keep themselves safe. I heard many times that whilst they are used to storms, they didn’t expect this level of devastation. And yet, it was well-known and publicised in the international media days before the storm hit.
Climate change is compounding matters. Hurricanes such as Matthew are increasing in intensity and affecting areas that haven’t experienced such events before. In some cases, some of the most vulnerable- such as the elderly- were reluctant to heed warnings even when they did get them, as they had never experienced such extreme weather. They died preventable deaths in their homes.
And this loss of life, homes and jobs was to be made worse by what came after. Heavy rains and storm surges resulted in flooding, dumping sewage in the streets and contaminating sources of water. With this, came diseases such as malaria and cholera.
It was to reduce the risk of this additional disaster we mobilised young volunteers in the immediate aftermath. Using young volunteers, health agents were quickly mobilised, trained and dispatched to the communities. They spread simple messages through public demontrations for cholera prevention, reminding people to always wash their hands after using the toilet, during cooking and before eating. They also supported people to clean up their communities of the debris left in the hurricane’s wake. Key also to reducing the impact of future events, they informed people of simple steps that they should take to be more prepared the next time a disaster strikes.
In the Ouest department of Haiti, young people now assess disaster risk and vulnerability in their communities, and spread awareness about how to reduce the risks of hazards becoming disasters.
By taking their newly-gained knowledge of the increased climate variability, frequency, intensity and areas affected by disasters back to their communities. These young leaders are supporting their communities to be better prepared and more resilient.