In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti and caused the worst humanitarian crisis there since the 2010 earthquake. More than two million people were affected by the latest disaster to hit the Caribbean Island and up to 1,000 were killed. Homes, schools and hospitals were seriously damaged or destroyed.
Arriving in Port-au-Prince a day after the hurricane, and driving to Les Cayes, was like entering a war zone. The more we headed south, the more devastation we saw. Trees uprooted like tooth-picks, homes completely crushed, and roofs torn from still standing buildings.
Flooding and heavy rain followed the hurricane. Cholera surged across the southern peninsula, along the coast, the mountainous inland, and hard-to-reach villages.
Medical teams walked for up to four hours to reach isolated villages such as Rendel, which could not be accessed by vehicles. Donkeys proved to be vital, to carry medicines and supplies, but also to transport patients to the nearest health facility, hours away. Despite the challenges, the general feeling of commitment and desire to help was what motivated the team to continue.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
The humanitarian response in Haiti after the quake in 2010 was in many ways unprecedented. Millions of dollars were raised, and thousands of relief workers and volunteers flew in to help. Despite the incredible, life-saving work of some humanitarian organizations and rescue teams, the overall response was widely criticized for its inefficiencies, waste, duplication of services, and lack of coordination. The promise, to ‘build back better’ did not materialize. Today, seven years after the quake, Haitians are still living in extreme poverty and vulnerable conditions.
To compound the already fragile situation, in October 2010, cholera was brought to the island by United Nation’s (UN) soldiers from Nepal, causing an epidemic, infecting 700,000 people, and leading to the death of over 9,000 people. To date, the UN appeal to fight cholera in Haiti has received only 2% of the total funding required.
In response to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, it has been argued that humanitarian organizations were generally more effective and better organized. Fewer NGOs (non-governmental organizations) responded to the emergency, making coordination less chaotic. Local authorities took a more active role in leading the humanitarian efforts. And, the national and international aid agency HQ was not damaged by the hurricane, as it was in 2010, allowing for improved coordination.
Soon after the hurricane, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), in cooperation with the Haitian Ministry of Health and other health organizations, rolled out the largest cholera oral vaccination campaign ever to be carried out in an emergency.
The ambitious operation, which vaccinated over 700,000 people within a week, was largely considered a success, but was not without limitations.
The single dose vaccination only reduces the risk of contracting cholera by 65-85%, for a period of six months. While the campaign has undoubtedly limited the spread of the disease, and reduced the number of deaths, longer-term solutions are urgently needed to improve sanitation and make the water safe to drink.
What was less in evidence following Hurricane Matthew was funding.
Following the 2010 response, a veil of mistrust had been cast over humanitarian organizations in Haiti. The scandals of the past led to a reluctance to give and a belief that aid just won’t reach the people who actually need it. With a number of other humanitarian crises across the world, media attention quickly turned away from Haiti, exactly when they needed it most, leaving Haitians to suffer in silence.
After years of political turmoil, Haiti finally has a functioning and elected government. By the end of this year, after 13 years in the country, the UN peacekeeping mission plans to withdraw its military component.
The state in Haiti however remains highly fragile, and millions of Haitians are still dependant on aid for the most basic, lifesaving services. Today, one and a half million Haitians do not have adequate access to food and one in every five children are malnourished.
On top of this, the latest heavy rains in April affected 350,000 people, damaging 10,000 houses in the already devastated southern part of the country.
At this stage, more needs to be done to strengthen resilience and reinforce Haiti’s capacity to respond to future crises.
Now more than ever, Haitians need effective support, through effective partners that know and understand local culture, needs and priorities.
Now more than ever, the international community could make a difference, investing in basic infrastructure, hospitals, schools and water systems, and help break the vicious cycle of poverty and disease that make so many in Haiti suffer, needlessly.