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At a glance: Haiti

After the storms: Field diary from flood-stricken Gonaïves, Haiti

© UNICEF Haiti/2008/Asamoah
View from the helicopter over Gonaïves just before landing. The Haitian city is completely flooded and covered by a thick layer of mud.

By Raul Castillo

Regional Chief of Information and Communication Technology Raul Castillo provided emergency support to UNICEF Haiti in the aftermath of recent storms and severe flooding. His field diary follows.

GONAÏVES, Haiti, 25 September 2008 – I have worked in Latin America and the Caribbean from 1994 to 2000 and have visited Haiti several times during that period. As I landed in Port au Prince this time around, I saw that after more than eight years the situation of poverty and despair has not changed much. Misery can be seen everywhere. Children are begging and women are trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to sell some homemade products.

We flew by helicopter to Gonaïves, as all roads connecting the town have been flooded. Without a guaranteed seat, we arrived at the helicopter pad in the early morning. It was already a beehive of activity.

We secured seats on a UN emergency support helicopter, an old MI-8 Russian machine flown by a Russian crew. Twenty-five minutes into the 35 minute flight,  the effects of the hurricane were visible – water-logged fields, roads partially under water, houses and crops are flooded.

City covered in mud

© UNICEF Haiti/2008/Asamoah
Raul Castillo in the helicopter on the way to Gonaives

As we approached Gonaïves we were amazed by the degree of the devastation. This town has been reduced to a mix of water and mud. Some housing blocks have disappeared completely, while others have been severely damaged. Everything is caked in mud.

Our helicopter landed on a heliport on high ground and we headed straight to the UN compound. In listening to stories from people who were on the ground at the time of the hurricane, I learned that it somehow took them by surprise.

No one thought a disaster like this was going to happen, they told me. First they got strong rain and high winds, but the problem started when the rain did not stop. The intensity gradually increased, the level of the water started to go up and the mixture of water and mud began to rise. Water levels went up more than 3 metres. In the fields, people were forced to move up onto the rooftops of their houses or just climb up trees.

Women and children at risk

© MINUSTA Haiti/2008/Mishra
During the floods in Gonaïves, people fled to the rooftops of their houses, waiting to be rescued by helicopters as water levels rose.

A few people were rescued by helicopter; others were rescued by emergency teams. However, I was told that even now, almost a week after the hurricane, there are people missing or waiting to be rescued.

In town, we saw some people trying to dig the mud out of their houses, but the task is really hard and pretty much everyone lacks the proper equipment to do it. Efforts have been made to provide water and food, but a large portion of the population has not been reached. As usual the most affected are women and children.

As days pass by the needs are greater and security worsens, making aid efforts more difficult.

Return from Gonaïves

© UNICEF Haiti/2008/Menard
A picture taken during the UNICEF assessment mission in Gonaïves: A boy fights his way through the mud to get into his family’s house.

Torrential rains in Port au Prince delayed our helicopter for the return trip from Gonaïves. By the time the helicopter arrived it could not land, because the heliport was still occupied by another copter that was also delayed. The captain of the arriving copter managed to set it down on the top of a hill while he waited for the heliport to be vacated.

We quickly boarded the helicopter as the bad weather approached Gonaïves. We took off and could once more see the muddy landscape. I found myself ardently hoping that whatever big storm comes next, it will miss Haiti.

The destruction is bad enough already, I cannot imagine what will happen if another hurricane strikes this devastated island.



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