Haiti storm damage severe, enduring
Herald Staff Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- More than seven weeks after Hurricane Georges roared
through Haiti the night of Sept. 22-23, it is clear that the long-term losses in the
hemisphere's poorest and most vulnerable nation were much more far-reaching than
anyone initially realized and the recovery period will be long and painful.
``It's such a fragile environment and the country is used to dealing with
a lot of pain,''
said Tom Friedeberg, local director for CARE, the international relief agency.
``People are so much more vulnerable here than anywhere. They're hit hard by
natural disasters of less severity.''
Or, as another aid official put it: ``What's a minor cold in another country
is a major
case of pneumonia in Haiti.''
Houses were obliterated, villages were flooded, hundreds died, roads and
were destroyed, crops and livestock -- the lifeblood of peasant farmers -- were
wiped out, and fear of epidemics from polluted water is growing.
A full assessment is not yet in, but it is expected that for those who
worst may lie ahead, as food shortages occur and prices rise over the coming
This in a country where 80 percent of the rural population -- which accounts
percent of Haiti's people -- already fails to get its daily recommended calorie
requirement and the annual per capita income is $250, compared to $1,460 in the
neighboring Dominican Republic, also a poor country.
Food production hit
Georges' path took it through areas in the northern half of the country
for the majority of Haiti's food production. By some accounts, it wiped out 60
percent of the country's food crops during the peak production period. In some
areas, 100 percent of the crops -- including such basic foodstuffs as rice, plantains
and beans -- were devastated.
A preliminary damage assessment by the U.S. Agency for International
Development says that Hurricane Georges seriously weakened the rural economy.
``Farmers are decapitalized and unable, without assistance, to bounce back
new plantings,'' it says.
``Overwhelming pressure on the rural family to, simultaneously, rebuild
irrigation canals; get seeds and inputs; plant new crops; and while the new crops
grow, find jobs to feed themselves and pay their children's schooling costs at the
beginning of the school year, may crush their will to keep farming,'' concludes the
assessment by USAID, which has pledged $22.5 million in relief and recovery
The loss of livestock was a heavy blow for many rural families who depend
pigs, cows, goats, horses and sheep. The animals provide food, income and
transportation, and are a form of savings and investment.
Still another fear is that -- with roads wiped out and no way to get crops
where they did survive the storm -- peasants may cut down even more of Haiti's
few remaining trees for charcoal to give them a source of income.
The already denuded landscape was a major contributor to the widespread
that accounted for most of Hurricane Georges' damage in Haiti.
Loss is incalculable
The impact of the agricultural loss remains incalculable.
Kesner Pharel, a Haitian economist, notes that Haiti's economy grew by
3 percent in the last fiscal year, in large part fueled by a ``very good agricultural
sector'' which also helped bring inflation down to 8.2 percent. And, adds Pharel, ``a
lot of people were living off agriculture.''
Because of the drop in agricultural production caused by Georges, food
increase this year and Pharel predicts that inflation will be running at 10 percent
annually by January. And food normally imported from the neighboring Dominican
Republic won't be available because of Georges' devastation there.
``Agriculture suffered a lot,'' said Frantz Jean-Philippe, in charge of
assistance for the Haitian Red Cross, who observes that Haiti's agricultural system
is based on small farmers with their damage and recovery time depending on their
He said a survey of 587 families in the Central Plateau, north of Port-au-Prince,
indicated 208 houses damaged and 93 destroyed; about 282 animals lost and crops --
mostly beans and plantains -- wiped out for 223 families.
``What we're afraid of is that there might be some kind of epidemic because
them use water that came from either springs or rivers and they are all polluted by
the flood with dead animals, all kinds of debris coming down there . . . water they
use for drinking or cooking. There is the danger of typhoid, malaria or hepatitis . . .
any kind of intestinal infection,'' Jean-Philippe said.
Estimates of the dead range from more than 200 by the government to more
400 by USAID. Said Jean-Philippe: ``We probably will never know. We don't have a
structured system to account for the dead and missing.''
``It [the hurricane] is not just another obstacle for Haiti to overcome,''
he said. ``It is
a major obstacle to overcome.''
Yet Port-au-Prince, the teeming capital with its two to three million people,
relatively unscathed, perhaps helping to explain why Haiti's plight has attracted so
little international attention.
``I don't think people in Port-au-Prince have a full understanding of what
said a foreign diplomat. ``Local TV did not cover it, in part because of an inability to
get access. There's no full sense of the reality.''
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald