Thoughts before Matthew

It is Sunday, 2 PM. I am in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, waiting. Together with 10 million people. Waiting for the impact of yet another burden on the already heavily loaded shoulders of this amazing country.

50 years ago, on 29 September 1966, Hurricane Ines struck Haiti. Categorized as a class 4 – like Matthew, the hurricane on its way – with winds up to 250 km/h Ines left close to 1,000 people dead, thousands wounded and made 60,000 homeless overnight. Damage was estimated at US$20 million.

As I write, Matthew is centered about 335 miles (535 km) south-southwest of Port-au-Prince. It is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history. Once arrived, it is expected to dump up to 25 inches (60 cm) of rain in the South of Haiti.

Over the past days UNICEF has been working frantically alongside the Government and the humanitarian community in order to stockpile crucial supplies for 10,000 people. Safe water is top of the priority list and water bladders and chlorination tablets have been delivered to regions via the government’s DINEPA (Direction Nationale de l”Eau Potable et de l’assainissement).

Clean drinking water is the first commodity that runs short in an emergency like this and in short time, the “source of life” can become the cause of  an epidemic. In a context where less than one in five rural people have access to improved sanitation, with 40 per cent using unprotected water sources, it is feared that the hurricane will worsen an already dark scenario. Since the cholera outbreak in 2010 nearly 10,000 people have died. Currently there are several hundred new cases every week, and one in three of those affected is a child. Information campaigns on taking simple measures to prevent the disease (washing hands, chlorinating water, etc.) have been intensified and are underway in all areas at risk.

Aside from the prevention of disease, UNICEF teams are working to protect the wellbeing of children. The right to education, protection, health, water and nutrition are not suspended in times of crises but weigh even more heavily.

I feel sad and antsy writing this, on the edge of a situation likely to cause suffering for thousands of families while not being able to do anything to prevent it. Since yesterday I have been receiving mails from friends who send love, thoughts and prayers. Some living thousands of miles away seem to be better informed than many of those whose lives may change forever once Matthew strikes. As less than one in seven Haitians has electricity, with literary rates around 60 percent, access to information remains a rare commodity. And yet tomorrow it maybe lifesaving.

To avoid facing Matthew unprepared, communication on protection measures is at full speed, in particular in Les Cayes, the area that is likely to be the worst affected. Here agents from the Government’s Civil Protection department (DPC) and staff of UNICEF’s partner NGOs are walking the streets, urging residents to prepare emergency kits, secure their homes and to spread the message.

Because of its steep terrain, Haiti (Ayiti in Taino, the language of the first inhabitants of the island, translates as ‘land of high mountains’) is particularly vulnerable to devastating floods. Massive deforestation over decades has left countless hillsides and mountains devoid of the trees that usually hold back water. With 60 percent of the population living with less than US$1.25 a day, many families reside in houses that are barely able to withstand heavy rainfall. Typically these are built of wood with fragile corrugated steel as a roof. As I hear the wind intensifying outside my thoughts are with those families who now feel their walls shake.

Haiti has so much beauty to share and courage to build upon that Matthew, no matter its consequences, will not get the upper hand. In the coming days and beyond, we must do whatever we can to support Haitian children, women and men, so that they can move forward.

PS : To keep hope in times of worry for Haiti have a look at our My Hero series, which features the strengths and courage of children across Haiti. (Videos are available in English, French, Creole)

Cornelia Walther is the Chief of Communication for UNICEF Haiti. She’s worked with UNICEF for the past 13 years in Africa and Afghanistan. Since her PhD on the responsibility to achieve children’s rights, her motto is: change for good starts here and now, with every individual.  


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