Despite civil protection officials taking to the streets to warn people, many on Haiti’s southern peninsula were unaware of the approach of Hurricane Matthew. It caused the greatest loss of life of any Atlantic Hurricane for eleven years. It is one month on yesterday (Friday) and disaster relief agency, ShelterBox is still there helping Haitians to pick up the pieces. And they met one inspiring lady who opened her hotel to hundreds fleeing the approaching storm.
Hurricane Matthew wrought widespread destruction and loss of life during its journey across the Atlantic and Caribbean, including parts of Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Lucayan Archipelago, the SE United States, and the Canadian Maritimes. Over 1,600 deaths have been attributed to the storm, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in more than a decade.
As soon as the airports re-opened, a ShelterBox response team from the UK, US, Germany and Canada arrived in Haiti, some of whom had experience of the 2010 earthquake response. The team’s geographical focus has been on the hard to reach areas in the Sud-department around Port-a-Piment and Chardonnieres, with Les Cayes harbour as one of the delivery points for seaborne aid.
The team’s emphasis will be on the distribution of thousands of shelter kits, allowing the weatherproofing and repair of damaged homes. ShelterBox tents were found to be ideal for use as clinical space, to provide shelter and privacy for patients of the overstretched healthcare facilities. ShelterBox is also providing solar lighting for families where power is down, and mosquito nets, via its Rotary contacts. Water filters will also be in country soon to guard against the spread of waterborne disease. Within days of Matthew, as after the quake of 2010, Haiti was once again in the grip of a cholera outbreak.
ShelterBox is working in partnership with Handicap International and a new partner charity 410 Bridge to identify areas of unmet shelter need.
Many towns have a high proportion of destroyed and damaged buildings and infrastructure, but in sharp contrast to the 2010 quake the Haitian Government is coordinating efforts to clear, repair and rebuild, and taking a lead on allocating specific tasks to groups of aid agencies. The thousands of shelter kits and non-food items now inbound will help families to cope in the interim. ShelterBox is also keeping a weather eye on the prospects for Haiti as work continues. Heavy rains cause further flooding and deterioration of road conditions.
The charity has been touched by the resilience and compassion of the Haitian people, and their pride in helping one another. The team shares the story of Madame Mimose Felix who embodies the ‘Haitians helping Haitians’ self-help spirit. They met Mimose when they used Les Cayes as a delivery harbour for seaborne aid, and a hub for aid storage and delivery towards the worst-hit areas.
Madame Mimose’s story:
In the deep of the night on 4 October Madame Mimose Felix, owner of the Villa Mimosa hotel in Torbeck, Haiti, first heard the sound of people running. She says, ‘The storm got really bad at around 4 am. But I had left instructions for the security gates to the hotel to be left open, so people could come here if they needed to.’
‘I looked out of my window, and I saw everyone running. Women with children, pregnant women. They were all running.’
Mimose Felix ended up housing over 300 people in her hotel in the days following the hurricane. In the weeks since Matthew made landfall here she continued to help her community with food donations.
This was made possible by her own local not-for-profit organisation Groupe d’Action pour l’Habilitation Economique et Sociale de la Famille Haïtienne (GRAFHES). This remarkable social enterprise trains and helps Haitian communities, improves living conditions in agricultural areas, and for almost a decade has been working in this southern area providing 13,000 students with hot meals throughout the year. They have also established ten processing units for women’s groups to produce peanut butter and cassava for sale to the school meal programme.
Little wonder then that big-hearted Madame Mimose flung open her gates to everyone as the hurricane roared towards Haiti. She is the embodiment of the ‘Haitians helping Haitians’ philosophy, known locally as ‘konbit’, which helps this Caribbean country to survive every setback that weather and seismology throw at it. Konbit grew from the shared toil of community farming, but has now come to represent a broader spirit of working together and helping one another in times of hardship, and a common goal of improving everyone’s lives.
Mimose is a former agricultural economy Minister in the Haitian Government. When her mother, sisters and brothers left to begin a new life in the USA fifty years ago, she remained with her father because she is passionate about Haiti.
The village of Torbeck, where Mimose runs her hotel, is just outside Les Cayes. Areas to the west of here were among the worst hit by Matthew’s 145 mph winds. That is a wind speed you can’t stand up in, where roofs fly off and masonry collapses, where vehicles tip over.
ShelterBox’s Response Team has been based in Les Cayes and Port au Prince, as they work to find ways to help Haitian people recover, rebuild, re-energise. As is typical in responding to major disasters ShelterBox is working with partner aid organisations, both global and local. This time a local partner is 410 Bridge, who build sustainable communities in Haiti. The Les Cayes Rotary Club is also helping to identify what kind of aid is needed, and where. A long-established alliance with major humanitarian player Handicap International is also strengthening ShelterBox’s arm.
ShelterBox response team member Andre Bloemink says, ‘I have been really encouraged by the level of coordination between agencies and the active role that the various government departments are taking. There is a real desire to fully plan a thorough response, to ensure that no community is left without support.’
‘The response overall is also very much focused on early recovery, as opposed to solely working on the immediate relief of need, making Shelter Kits the ideal response. There is a real desire for longer-term, Haitian-led planning for recovery, and ensuring that potentially unintended impacts of aid are fully assessed and mitigated.’
‘All this takes a lot of effort, but I am encouraged and heartened by the level of commitment to this from our partners and aid colleagues.’
Local experts say that this hurricane may have longer-term effects on vegetation, livestock and wildlife than even the 2010 earthquake did, and worse than Hurricane Hazel in the 1950s.
In an uncertain future, which will no doubt contain more hurricanes and storms for Haiti, one thing is certain – Matthew will never return. When a storm is particularly deadly or costly, its name is removed from the list by the annual meeting of the WMO Tropical Cyclone Committees. Matthew, having claimed over 1,600 lives, will now be consigned to history like Haiyan (Philippines 2013), Sandy (USA 2012), Katrina (USA, 2005) and Tracy (Darwin, 1974).
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