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Facing off the floods: Delivering life-saving aid to hurricane-affected children and families in Haiti

© UNICEF Haiti/Jasmine Pittenger/2008
Fernando Thermidor, 2, and his mother Judith look out from the Jubilee National School classroom where their family of five has sought refuge from the floods in Gonaïves, Haiti.

Gonaives, Haiti, 17 september, 2008 - Fernando Thermidor has the look of a toddler who is “all cried out” as he buries his tear-stained face in his mother’s shoulder.

But this is no ordinary two-year-old’s temper tantrum. Fernando and his mother, Judith, are crammed like sardines into a schoolroom in Gonaives, Haiti, where they have taken refuge from flash floods along with nearly 200 other people.

“We have been sleeping here – the whole family – for the past week. We had to run out of our house with only the clothes on our backs when the water rose,” says Judith. She uses one hand to show the level of the water in their house: mid-thigh.

One after another, in only three weeks’ time, Hurricanes Faye, Gustav, Hanna and Ike have battered Haiti. Flash flooding in the wake of the hurricanes has affected 800,000 people all over the country. In Gonaives alone, some 70,000 people are living in makeshift shelters like Jubilee National School, where Fernando’s family is staying. They are hungry, they are tired after slogging through the fetid, muddy water that fills the streets of Gonaives, and they are in need of clean water to drink.

Supplies make difficult journey to Gonaives

A shout goes up at the shelter as the distribution truck arrives, bearing clean water from UNICEF and food from WFP. These will help fend off hunger and thirst – as well as the water-borne diseases that are the major killer of children in the aftermath of an emergency like this one, in which large numbers of people are forced to live at close quarters without proper sanitation.

The water and food that will be distributed today have made nearly as arduous a journey to get here as the Haitians themselves. All roads and bridges connecting Gonaives to the rest of the country are destroyed, and humanitarian aid can only reach the area by helicopter and boat. The challenges don’t stop there. Once the supplies have arrived in Gonaives, they must be delivered under the escort of UN Blue Helmets, in order to ensure that they are put in the hands of those most in need.

© UNICEF Haiti/Jasmine Pittenger/2008
Sender Doristil came to Jubilee National School by himself to get food for his family, who have a newborn baby at home.

The logistical challenges involved in bringing 60,000 litres of water and many hundreds of family hygiene kits to Gonaives and delivering them into the hands of children and families like the ones at this shelter today are countless. And these are only the initial supplies needed to get the affected families through the first days of the crisis. Many more tons of emergency aid are already on their way – 11.5 tons of blankets, hygiene kits, water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts have been airlifted from UNICEF´s supply headquarters in Copenhagen. The shipment also includes school-in-a-box kits that will help the educational system to get back on its feet after the disaster.

Thousands of people receive emergency aid

The schoolyard here at Jubilee National School looks smaller and smaller as thousands of people emerge from the classrooms where they have taken shelter. Nearly half of those getting in line are children. Many of them are wearing rags; the luckiest of them sport brightly-colored T-shirts that were only slightly ragged when this ordeal began. All are covered in mud.

The line inches forward. One child, one woman, one man at a time, each person walks away with an armload of clean water, hygiene supplies and high-energy biscuits.

“I came here today so my family could eat, so they could drink water,” says Sender Doristil, a boy who looks about ten years old. With four other children at home, including a newborn baby, his mother couldn’t join him in line. Still, Sender’s family is one of the lucky ones. Their house, while flooded, is still standing and the family was able to move up onto the rooftop, where they’ve built a makeshift tent.

It is hard not to wonder how the misery inflicted by these four hurricanes will exacerbate the deprivation in which most Haitians already live.

“Haiti is already the poorest country in the western hemisphere. It’s a country that struggles to get its head above the murky water left behind by years of corruption and violence, and a country where food shortages led to violent riots as recently as last April,” says Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “For it to be affected by four consecutive hurricanes in such a short time seems more than unfair.”

But ten-year-old Sender Doristil, who has just received an armload of water, food and essential hygiene supplies, is clearly not thinking about questions of fairness. He carries his load with great care and with his head held high, proud to be bringing life-saving help back to his family.

For further information
Jasmine Pittinger, jpittinger@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean

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About UNICEF
UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

 

 
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