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The Next Haitian Catastrophe Looms

Authors: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health, and Captain Eustaquio Castro-Mendoza, USN
May 17, 2010
Huffington Post

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Hurricane season is coming, and that could bring catastrophe to the 1.7 million Haitians now living in squalid tent cities, their homes having been destroyed in the January 12th earthquake. Top meteorologists forecast an unusually severe storm season for the Atlantic/Caribbean region featuring up to 16 named tropical storms and 8 hurricanes - up to five of which may exceed Category 3 severity. It's a tough time to be living in earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince with nothing between you and a deluge but a flimsy sheet of plastic.

Haiti lost an estimated 220,000 lives when Nature struck with hideous Richter 7.0 force. Over the coming year donors from all over the world plan to spend more than $5 billion rebuilding Port-au-Prince, and experts say that is less than half the sum needed to transform the country into a reasonably habitable, thriving society.

Forecasters say there is a 49-56% chance that a tropical storm will hit Haiti this hurricane season - high enough odds to warrant extreme concern. In broad strokes, we know what needs to be done, and how to do it.

In recent years Haiti has been slammed by storms, and typically taken a far greater toll than its Caribbean neighbors. In 2008 a series of Category 4 hurricanes slammed the region, and Haiti was hit by all four of them, killing 800 people and causing $1 billion in damages. In 2004 Hurricane Jeanne pounded the coastal town of Gon‚ives, killing 3,000 people. In 1963 Hurricane Flora claimed 8,000 Haitian lives. These events occurred when the populations had houses to live in - not tents.

As horrible as Hurricanes Jeanne and Flora's devastation were, the lessons of those storms point to what must be done today, in order to save lives this summer. Haiti's steep mountains and deep canyons absorb the winds that batter flatter coastlines, such as those along Florida and the Carolinas. For Haitians, death comes from water, not wind, making even straight downpours threats to tens of thousands of people. A flight over Haiti reveals why: Vast swathes of the country look like the moon, devoid of greenery, soil-holding roots, trees or grasses. Centuries of deforestation has left the entire country a mudslide waiting to happen.

Three steps must be taken over the next 3-4 weeks, backed by sufficient funding to allow humanitarian groups, and the governments of Haiti and the United States resources to get the job done right. First, the Red Cross estimates there are still up to 50,000 people living in Port-au-Prince tents that are located on a flood plain: They must be moved to higher ground, safe from the paths of likely mudslides. And barriers must be erected to capture mud flows before they can reach the remaining tent cities of the region.

Second, Haiti desperately requires a network of professionally-staffed emergency operations centers, designed to spot pending storms, track their likely paths of destruction and issue timely warnings to the government and population. There is currently no such Emergency Ops Center, and no radar capability in Haiti to warn of approaching storms. Forecasters are reliant on less reliable satellite images - it's akin to trying to decide where Hurricane Katrina is heading simply by watching CNN. Few Haitians even have access to such mass media reporting: Government needs far more refined storm tracking systems as a basis for issuing warnings to the already traumatized population.

Third, Haiti desperately needs a series of evacuation plans, based on different storm scenarios. Neighboring poor island nations, such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, have minimized their numbers of lives lost, even in Category 5 hurricanes, through careful advance planning, public drills, and clear evacuation and transportation schemes. Haiti's roads, notoriously hideous before the earthquake, remain terrible, mass transit is virtually nonexistent, and getting safely out of Port-au-Prince means scaling significant volcanic mountain ridges.

There is good news: United Nations, the Department of Defense's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the US Agency for International Development, Red Cross and Haitian government recognize the threat, and are racing to brace the impoverished nation for worse calamities. The people may not have CNN on their TVs, but they do have cell phones, and texted warnings are heeded. The UN and SouthCom recently executed an evacuation drill, and both are racing to get at least one Haitian-staffed Emergency Operations Center up and running before the deluge.

Evacuation routes should be identified now and updated frequently as roads and bridges are brought back into service. A hurricane siren warning system could be part of the plan, as well as those blanket text message alerts. Haitians can learn from the Cuban experience and set up social organizations and drills, and teach children what to do when hurricanes come. For the traumatized population fear is best confronted with empowering planning, giving each and every resident of Port-au-Prince a clear sense of what they are supposed to do, and where they should go, when storm sirens blare.

In the long term, every effort should be made to transition from temporary shelters to concrete hurricane shelters or bunkers.

Red Cross Communications Coordinator Alex Wynter, speaking recently of the inadequacy of hurricane preparations, "The hurricane season is Russian roulette. You might get one, you might not." We cannot play Russian roulette with the lives of the Haitian people. They have suffered too much. Time is against us. We must assume, operationally, that at least one calamitous hurricane will impact Haiti this year. And we must build all ongoing efforts accordingly.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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