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Haiti escapes catastrophe as Hurricane Tomas skirts island

Haiti is spared a direct hit at a time when more than a million people remain in tent camps after the Jan. 12 earthquake. But the hurricane offers a reminder of Haiti's vulnerability.

November 06, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Leogane, Haiti — At 6 a.m. Friday, Roseanna Nicolas, 50, heard screams from the road. She looked out her door to see a sheet of tea-colored water streaming down the road.

Nicolas, her husband and four teenage children ran for higher ground as the water gurgled into their newly built home of sticks and dented tin.

The Rouyonne River had burst its banks and was now flowing right through the center of the town that was closest to the epicenter of a devastating January earthquake. Camps filled with refugees of one disaster were now inundated with 2 to 3 feet of water.

But by the afternoon, Nicolas was in good cheer, with a great toothy smile.

"God could have had it happen last night, and we wouldn't have escaped," she said. "Instead he had it happen during the day so we could see it and get out."

Her original house had fallen to the ground with the rest of this old sugar plantation capital in the quake. The family of six barely escaped alive. They picked up what they could from the ruins and found a patch of open land under a mango tree behind an abandoned maternity hospital.

They started with tarps and sticks, and over 10 months built a little two-room house covered with salvaged tin. Now they were hunkered down inside the hospital, grateful to have escaped.

On Friday, Hurricane Tomas passed to the west, flooding several cities and causing much anxiety but sparing a direct hit at a time when more than a million people remain in tent camps after the Jan. 12 earthquake. By evening it was north of the Caribbean nation.

If anything, Tomas reminded the world how vulnerable Haiti remains.

"We say in Haiti, one bad thing brings a good thing," said Michael Moscoso, a rum maker here. "Maybe if this didn't happen, the international community wouldn't realize what a mess Haiti still is."

Haitian officials reported seven deaths. But government officials and foreign aid groups had been warning of a much greater catastrophe, particularly in Port-au-Prince, where most of the homeless live.

President Rene Preval took to the radio warning people in vulnerable areas to leave. "It's not when the water comes upon you that you're supposed to be looking for a place to stay," he said. "Go to a friend's house."

But many didn't have the option. In the months since the quake, international aid groups and the Haitian government have been unable to provide temporary shelters on a large scale.

By and large, camp residents hunkered down under tarps and pieces of rusted tin. "We don't know what to do," said Jubert Clerge, 48, watching the rain from his hut, made of leaky tarps hung over a stick frame, at a camp on the Delmas 33 road.

The stream just 10 feet away turns his floor into mud during every storm. Just two weeks ago, he was 3 feet deep in water and muck. Friday morning, he nailed a piece of corrugated tin across the bottom of his doorway, hung the clothes not destroyed by the last flood over the rafters and waited to see what God had in store for his country this time.

He looked at the piece of tin and laughed at the absurdity of it.

"I can't do anything else," he said.

This brand of fatalism is pervasive these days, as the promises of reconstruction, from the vantage of residents, fade every day.

With only moderate rains, the hillside camp of about 25,000 people was a sticky mess. Clay clung an inch thick to shoes. Trails were hard to tell from drainage ditches. Residents were worried that wind would rip their tarps away. Those who could tie them down did, but many could only hope that a couple of bricks and rocks might hold things in place.

Six young men sat in a circle singing hymns in one tent next to a muddy path. "When Jesus died at Calvary it was for me," they sang. "I asked myself will I know, how many people I will owe."

The six were cousins and brothers forced into the camp after their apartment fell during the earthquake.

Mores Fleurimond, 35 and the oldest, said he lost his job as a driver when the owner of his truck moved back to the provinces, and they had been surviving with the help of an uncle who sends them occasional bags of rice. The group has almost no belongings. Fleurimond, a muscular man with a thick goatee, was stuck wearing a secondhand T-shirt depicting a kitten and the quip, "Around here, cats are in charge."

Despite the conditions, they have nowhere to go, as work is scarce and rent is sky high. "We're staying until they force us out," he said.

If their part of the hill gives way, their only option is to run to a "shelter" up the hill, which is just a bigger tent on secure ground. It would fit perhaps 100 people.

United Nations officials evacuated women and children from just one camp, Corail-Cesselesse, the only official camp near the capital set up by the government and relief organizations. Thursday afternoon, U.N. trucks took about 2,000 residents to a nearby hospital.

The same people had been moved in April from a camp in the hills above Port-au-Prince because that area was considered a hazard. But subsequent storms did more damage at Corail.

Waiting in a line of evacuees, Raphael James Lee, 24, said residents were only staying in the wind-blown camp, 10 miles outside the city, for the promise of houses to come.

In Leogane, rum maker Moscoso said he hoped that fears sparked by Tomas would give a boost to the rebuilding effort.

He said a malaise had set in as promises of reconstruction and jobs never materialized.

But Friday, people of the town were out and about, chatting and laughing as some forded the river.

A little boy smiled and poled an old ice chest around a newfound pond next to the highway.

"In some ways, we have so little to do," Moscoso said, "that a disaster brings some sort of activity or occupation."

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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