Rebuilding after hurricane Matthew
Many victims in Haiti feel abandoned nine months later as the aid stops and there’s nowhere to turn for help
A feisty Vanette Joseph slowly navigates her way through a field of debris, passing broken branches and other reminders of last year’s devastating 275 km/h hurricane before spying one of her few surviving plants.
“All of the lime trees were destroyed,” she says as something catches her eye. She moves in for a closer look.
Much like hurricane Matthew put a chokehold on her livelihood, an invasive coiling vine has got hold of the lone standing lime tree, and Joseph, 91, isn’t happy. So the determined farmer pushes her eyeglasses on top of her forehead, reaches in and starts pulling.
“I had 100 coconut trees,” she said. “They used to give me at least 10 sacks to send to Port-au-Prince. Now, I can’t even find one coconut to put in some rice to eat.”
For most of her life Joseph has been self-sufficient, building a life off of coconut, breadfruit, plantain, mangoes and other crops, which she and her late husband planted in this western breadbasket, 275 kilometres from Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince.
Then hurricane Matthew rumbled through in October and uprooted it all, leaving behind $2.8 billion in damage.
In Matthew’s immediate aftermath, UN and nongovernmental agencies trucked and flew in thousands of metric tons of rice and vegetable oil and distributed emergency tarps to storm victims all along Haiti’s southern peninsula, where the storm’s Category 4 winds hit. And when reports of hunger surfaced in this rural plain and other storm-ravaged communities earlier this year, they stepped in to do more.
But nine months after Matthew’s passage, the free rice rations have stopped and food shortages have been replaced with unaffordable highpriced staples. Once locally available, they are now being trucked in. All along the peninsula, peasants who have been eking out a meagre existence by subsistence farming and fishing say they’ve been left to fend for themselves amid a painfully slow recovery and another hurricane season.
They feel abandoned, they say, by foreign aid donors and politicians as they struggle to rebuild their lives, not just from Matthew’s wreckage, which left them with massive loss of revenues, but from the heavy rain and drought that ensued and turned their harvest to dust.
“We can spend 30 years and we’ll never bounce back,” said Duvanel Francois, 42, who is trying to earn enough to pay for school-exam fees in the rural outskirts of the seaside city of Jeremie by helping another farmer rebuild his home. “We used to have plantains; we don’t have any. We used to have oranges as fruits; we don’t have any. We had avocados, potatoes. These were our oxygen. Once you lose them, you’ve lost everything.”
Francois was among several men shovelling clay-coloured soil. Located off a rutted, cratered part of the desolated national road that leads into the Grand’Anse, one of Haiti’s 10 geographical departments on the southwest coast, the construction site was an oddity. Even though shiny new metal roofs dot the region’s once-againgreen landscape, most homes remain in disrepair, their occupants shuttered in deeper misery, their only economic activity the making of charcoal.
Proud that his pre-Matthew earnings had enabled him to school six children, Francois said he only managed this school year because fees were waived. But with no such luck with upcoming final exams, he had no other choice, he said, but to seek out odd jobs in hopes of raising $4.
“The weather took everything,” he said. To make ends meet he had put up a piece of his property for sale but found no takers. “I’m fighting, but I’ve yet to have anyone from the government or mayor’s office come give me a hand.”
Late last month, President Jovenel Moise declared a state of emergency for the storm-hit regions. Coming nearly nine months after Matthew, the June 30 presidential decree came one day before a caravan of excavators and other state-owned earthmoving equipment rolled out of the rice-growing Artibonite Valley to the south as part of Moise’s ‘Caravan of Change’ initiative he launched after taking office on Feb. 7.
Some Haitians, like agricultural specialist Jean-Marie Pamphile, who has been helping Joseph clear her land so she can benefit from a Catholic Relief Services replanting program, have a lot of hope that the caravan, which arrived in the Grand’Anse Friday, can help bring much of the storm-ravaged land back to life.
The CRS program is paying $1 per cacao tree and 50 cents per banana tree (for as many as 100 of each tree) to get about 7,000 farmers to diversify their food and income, and expand their cacao gardens. But it requires an investment — money many don’t have.
“I should easily be able to recruit 117 people,” said Pamphile, who has been trying to enrol farmers in the CRS program. “But while a lot of people have offered up their names, they can’t plant because they don’t have the funds to prepare their land.”
Fisherman Recilhome St. Firmin, on the other hand, says he doesn’t have much faith in the caravan, which is getting some financial assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank but has been dismissed by critics as political cinema.
“There won’t be any change,” said St. Firmin, who lives on the coastal outskirts of Port Salut, about four hours south of the Grand’Anse.
Like many in Port Salut, which has gone from being a vibrant tourist town to a place seemingly devoid of life after losing more than a dozen of its hotels to Matthew, St. Firmin thought the hurricane’s deadly passage would bring an immediate injection of cash and reconstruction along the coast.
“I don’t think they’ve forgotten us,” he said of donors and the Haitian government. “I just think they aren’t concerned with us. If they were concerned about our well-being they would have been helping since Matthew passed. Nothing is impossible.”
Efforts to interview Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant were not successful.
Last month, the Haitian government released an ambitious $2.2 billion US budget document. But while agriculture — Moise’s key campaign platform — received a 43 per cent boost, its proposed allocation is still $110 million less than the $249 million allocated for public works, according to an analysis Group Croissance, a Port-au-Prince economic think tank. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the budget: the Haitian parliament, with a 74 per cent boost in its yearly allocation.
“When you look at this budget, the biggest question is how it will be financed,” said economist Rock Andre, a consultant for Group Croissance. He added that foreign aid has decreased to $3.8 million and Haiti has never collected $1.4 billion in expected revenues.
Before the storm shredded her coconut and breadfruit trees, Marie-Lucienne Duvert eked out a living selling wholesale to street merchants in Portau-Prince. Since Matthew, she has had to become a market vendor herself, she said, spending three days a week at a market near her home in Morne La Source on the rural outskirts of Les Cayes.
She started the business with four high-interest loans totalling $1,100. After a heavy downpour ruined her merchandise, she had no other choice but to tap the funds to replace her eroded metal roof and upgrade her stormdamaged wood-frame house.
“Nobody ever came by and offered any help,” she said. “When you have debt, there is no such thing as sleep.”
Koldo Echebarria, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti representative, said the institution will reroute about $85 million of its funds to reconstruction efforts in the south. The money will fund road repairs, along with schools, water treatment plants and flood prevention.
Elmidieu Seriate, a father of three, says he journeys to the shorelines on the outskirts of Les Cayes in southern Haiti every day from his mountain home in hopes of finding enough fish to sell.
Top: Women in Impasse Beauzile cooking rice and beans at a "community restaurant.”
Vanette Joseph, 91, is determined to plant, she says, after losing 100 coconut trees.
Above: A young boy walks through farmer Vanette Joseph’s destroyed property.