THE AMERICAS AND CARIBBEAN feature story for Haiti

© UNICEF Haiti/2009

Children play at a UNICEF-assisted centre, run by the Italian NGO AVSI, in Cabaret. The centre provides psychosocial support for children affected by conflict and natural disasters.


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 21 September 2009 – Gonaïves, Haiti’s third largest city, had not fully recovered from Hurricane Jeanne’s massive floods in 2004, when Hurricane Hannah’s 105 mph winds hit the city in September 2008. 

The subsequent massive flooding destroyed the entire water supply system.  In response, UNICEF joined forces with its international NGO partners (Action Contre la Faim, CARE and Oxfam) to lead an initiative to restore safe drinking water to Gonaïves’ 30,000 residents, including children. 

“In terms of coverage, we started at zero.  We’ve since rehabilitated 600 wells and today provide approximately 25 litres of safe drinking water per person a day,” said UNICEF Haiti Water and Sanitation Specialist Julien Kossi Atchade.

Hurricane Hannah represents just one of the four consecutive major hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008.  As a result, more than 800,000 people became displaced, among them 300,000 children.  Scores of homes and crops were destroyed and more than 1,000 schools, disrupting the education of around 200,000 schoolchildren. 

The impact of these disasters that came one right after the other pushed the Haitian government and international agencies to the brink of their capacity in trying to handle the multiple emergencies.

Today, Haiti is better prepared.  Although several tropical depressions formed in 2009 in the Caribbean, the government has a new national strategy for disaster risk reduction, which includes emergency contingency plans supported by United Nations agencies and other partners. 

In this new preparedness plan, UNICEF will provide a range of supplies, from tents to water purification tablets, hygiene and health kits, blankets, cooking sets, and portable water systems.  These are already pre-positioned in eight key geographical areas throughout the country. 

In addition, a network of NGO partners has also been established to handle onsite distribution of UNICEF kits, which are stockpiled in the World Food Programme and NGO warehouses. Nutrition evaluation tools are also in place for early assessments of immediate needs of infants and pregnant mothers in the event of a disaster.

Emergency preparations do not only involve pre-positioned supplies or evaluation tools. In countries prone to disasters like Haiti, the emotional impact on children can be strong and make them some of the most vulnerable victims.  For example, in 2008 in the town of Cabaret, Hurricane Ike – Haiti’s fourth hurricane of the season - caused families, children, animals and debris to be swept away in rushing waters in the middle of the night.

“The children here are still traumatized,” explains Simeon Biguener, a psychosocial child specialist at the UNICEF-supported centre managed by the NGO Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale. “They’re still today afraid of going to sleep after dark. They wake up screaming in the middle of the night.” 

The horror of the disaster still haunts parents as well.  Of the 70 casualties, 11 children died.  “I lost my two-year-old infant that night,” Jeanne softly whispers at a counseling session for mothers centre in Cabaret. “I wanted to die.  The centre took me in and it’s still hard but I want to live now.” 

UNICEF’s network of partners continues to provide the most hurricane-affected areas with psychosocial care for children and women.  Trained volunteers are on standby to be quickly mobilized to provide psychosocial support and protection to children.  Specific sites for shelters – which can double as temporary schools and counseling areas in an emergency – have already been identified.

“Our preparation for the hurricane season in 2009 is a true ‘lessons learned’ effort at its best”, says Mr. Atchade.  “All of us - the aid agencies, the government and all our partners quickly assessed the needs and implemented the lessons learned from 2008. We have a coordinated response in place.  Compared to last year [2008], we’re better prepared.”

Marking the start of the official hurricane season in June 2009, the Haitian government has taken steps to keep the population informed on preventive and safety measures.  These include a series of public awareness spots on radio and television, as well as advisories from its own hurricane watch early warning centre.  Together, the Government of Haiti, UNICEF and other partners are prepared for the worst case scenario.