Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Day After

I came to Haiti in part to pursue a longstanding interest in studying disasters.  I came to Haiti to continue a longstanding interest in studying disaster.  That interest intensified when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast five years ago with the eye of the storm coming ashore just East of New Orleans.  The ensuing flood covered 80 percent of the city, including the home where my father had lived since Betsy, the last killer storm to target the area.

Post-earthquake Haiti, a new disaster area for me, seems like a replay.  Mid-afternoon on Friday, Port-au-Prince time, I was writing e-mails to my colleagues at my home institution, California Lutheran University, when the wind started to swirl.  My first impulse was to shoot photos, since I hadn't seen it get so dark so fast anywhere else but New Orleans.  I managed to squeeze off a photo when I realized the rain was partnering with le vent.

The second-floor apartment that I share with a Belgian, who sublets it to three Americans, has a wonderful terrace with wrought ironwork that permits breezes to make themselves at home.  This afternoon the guest was a lot more than a breeze, blowing over small flowerpots and causing the two of us who were home to run madly around the apartment closing windows and, more importantly, lashing down a large, blue Katrina-style tarp to the grillwork.  Failure to do so would result in certain flooding of the terrace and the adjoining room.

The wind caused the tarp to flap up over the roof.  I soon determined that a large potted plant had fallen over and trapped the tarp.  I wasn't going up on the roof, which though flat, didn't offer me any shelter from the wind-driven torrents.  Frankly, I wasn't sure that a sudden wind gust wouldn't blow me off the building.  So, I decided to go out on the steps and pull hard on the tarp, bringing the large plant and the pot holding it, crashing to the pavement below.  Now, we could tie the wildly flapping tarp to the ironwork and reduce the rainfall accumulating on the white tiles.

After a half hour, the third American, a freelance journalist, came running up the stairs.  He soon joined his partner and me in mopping up the water.  Small irony: the apartment had just been cleaned and mopped.  As we worked together, he shared that he had passed a camp of persons displaced by the earthquake.  The same wind that bedeviled our attempts to secure the tarp to the terrace made their tents flap in the angry wind.

Now for the worst part: The freelancer told me the government has admitted it has no hurricane evacuation plan for the more than one million residents of the camps.  Less than a week remains in September, which means the Haitians have to endure five more weeks of the hurricane season.  Clearly, strong thunderstorms can add immeasurably to their misery.  I now have a working knowledge of a new disaster in the making on the ground in Haiti.  

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