During the weekend of 17 – 19 September 2004, flood waters swept through the Artibonite, North and Northwest departments of Haiti. According to witnesses in Gonaïves the water started falling during the evening of Friday, 17 September and stopped on Sunday, 19 September.
On Wednesday, 22 September 2004, NCHR sent an investigative delegation to the regions most affected by the floods from tropical storm Jeanne. The purpose of the visit was three-fold: 1) to survey / document the overall damage of the storm; 2) to provide some immediate material assistance in the form of toiletries and food supplies to victims, and 3) to determine NCHR’s role in responding to the crisis.
According to press reports, the most affected areas were the town of Gonaïves (Artibonite) and surrounding communities and the Northwestern town of Port-de-Paix. NCHR had plans to travel to Port-de-Paix and made every effort to do so. However, both routes heading north were impassable, as the water had washed out both the road though Gros Morne and Route National #1 heading to Cap-Haitian. Thus the delegation’s visit was completed on Thursday, 23 September 2004.
The following report is a summary of observations and notes taken by the delegation members, as well as a number of comments and preliminary recommendations.
Upon entering the upper Artibonite Valley, the delegation came upon what appeared to be a large lake, consuming a plane which is known as Savanne Désolée. The only road leading through Savanne Désolée to Gonaïves was completely submerged under water – 3.2 km long – making crossing difficult and dangerous. Several vehicles had gone off the edge of the road and were stuck semi-submerged, including trucks carrying supplies. The delegation noted an exodus of people leaving Gonaïves, crossing the water on foot or in large trucks, including several young women with babies and/or small children. While some were carry whatever possessions they had left, numerous others had nothing left to take with them and all appeared weak and tired.
While the area of Savanne Désolée is not highly populated, NCHR observed several homes and buildings submerged under water, including the small airport. Several dead animals floated in the water.
With a population of approximately 140,000 people, Gonaïves is the largest town in the Artibonite Valley – the department that is often referred to as the breadbasket of Haiti.
Four (4) days after the flooding, water still covered the majority of the streets in the city. The smell upon entering the town was rank – a mixture of garbage and death as the decaying bodies of cows, pigs, goats, dogs and even a horse littered the street. Entire buildings lay in rubble – walls demolished, vehicles pushed into houses and/or submerged under water, entire homes pushed over and/or washed away. Where the water had receded, thick layers of mud remained. Evidence of the level of the water remained, particularly evident in the debris stuck in the iron grid on house windows and on top of walls.
The streets were full of people, washing laundry and whatever could be salvaged from their homes/business – using the same water contaminated by rotting animal carcasses. In some areas, residents had resumed market activities selling what food items they had left, while others were bailing water and mud from their homes/businesses.
Contrary to the rumours on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the populated shantytown of Raboteau on the seaside of Gonaïves was not completely washed away. The floodwaters did do significant damage to the homes in the area, but due to its higher position in relation to the sea and to downtown Gonaïves, the damage was not as extensive. With a population of approximately 50,000 people, residents of Raboteau are reporting only one (1) human causality from the flooding.
The bodies collected were being registered (and identified when possible) in notebooks; more than 1,500 bodies had been retrieved thus far. Authorities estimate the number of dead to be higher due to families who have collected their own dead and made attempts to bury them themselves. It was reported that the MUNISTAH contingent stationed in Gonaïves also lost two (2) members, but NCHR was unable to verify this information.
The residents of Gonaïves were visibly hungry and becoming increasingly desperate, to the point where several young men were becoming hostile to passengers in vehicles driving through town. Burning tire barricades were burning on the outskirts of Raboteau on 22 September.
Health and Sanitation
There are no operational hospitals functioning in Gonaïves as all were severely affected by the flooding. At the time of NCHR’s visit, four (4) triage clinic centers had been established: 1) at the Lycée Bicentenaire led by the UN forces, 2) at Ecole Ebenezer, run by a team of Cuban doctors, 3) at a healthcare centre in Raboteau, run by a team of staff from Médecins sans Frontières and local doctors, and 4) at the CARE office. A temporary station had been set up at the town’s City Hall run by the local chapter of the Red Cross, but was closed on the second day of the delegation’s visit due to the opening of the clinic in Raboteau. The NCHR delegation made visits to the UN led clinic, the Raboteau clinic, as well as the make shift clinic at City Hall.
The majority of the injuries registered are related to cuts and abrasions from stepping on debris hidden under the water and mud. Several cases of women giving birth were also noted. During the visit to the clinic at City Hall, those in charge said seven (7) women had given birth on the 22nd and five (5) already on the 23rd. At least one (1) of those births was a caesarean section. According to one worker at the UN led base, more than thirty (30) births had been recorded, not including the previously mentioned twelve (12).
NCHR met with Dr. Jean Gilles, the Director of the Hôpital la Providence in Gonaïves, who said that at present, the hospital is known to have lost sixteen (16) members of its staff and/or support staff. Several of the sick and injured being treated in the hospital at the time were killed by the floods. Fortunately, three (3) babies borne the previous night were spared. The pharmacy was completely washed out and all medicine and supplies swept away with the water. A brief visit to the hospital grounds allowed NCHR to note that the water level had reached up just under the second level of the buildings. Crews were working to shovel out the mud in one of the buildings.
Dr. Gilles spoke of plans to set up an operating room as quickly as possible to enable the International Red Cross doctors to operate in cases of emergency.
Upon entering the town of Gonaïves, the delegation came upon some sort of distribution taking place. People were lined up with pails and other containers to carry water. UN troops were present. NCHR also noted a water truck, parked on the side of the road, from which residents were taking water. The two (2) “distributions” did not seem to be related. A truck full of black sacks with supplies was seen near the town police station, but no one appeared to be handling the distribution as an aggressive crowd gathered and took what they could from the truck.
Other than a few individual vehicles handing out prepared food and/or toilet paper and the abovementioned distribution, the delegation did not observe any organized form of aid distribution.
Meetings with the Departmental Director of the Artibonite Police Force (DDA) and a visit to the local police station enabled the delegation to assess the situation of security in the town. NCHR noted a virtual lack of police presence in the town as a result of several factors: 1) the majority of police officers stationed in Gonaïves were personally affected by the flood waters, losing most of their possessions including their police uniforms, 2) a number of officers have not yet been accounted for, and 3) increasing threats against the PNH.
According to the DDA, insecurity is on the rise in the town as armed gangs are seeking to profit from the crisis. The DDA told the delegation that every night since Saturday, large groups of armed individuals roam the streets, firing shots in the air and stealing whatever they can find left in the rubble and debris. The police are powerless to react and to provide security, as they themselves are the targets of hostility. During the night of 22 September, armed individuals disarmed and physically attacked four (4) PNH officers and in a separate incident, armed individuals shot at the police station.
The Gonaïves police station has only one (1) functional vehicle, no sources of electricity no water and/or food supplies for its officers, no mattresses etc. Twenty-five (25) special unit officers (CIMO) were sent as back up but arrived without any supplies to sustain their stay in Gonaïves.
Thirty-one (31) individuals were being detained in the police custody at the time of the flooding. According to the chef de poste at the time of NCHR’s visit, those being held in one of the cells chipped away at the wall where the hinge of the gate was located and eventually managed to break out. Recognizing the impending crisis, officers opened the second cell and released the remaining detainees. The officers maintained that at least one (1) of those released is considered to be extremely dangerous.
Government Presence and Activity
It was difficult to identify any organized or structured government intervention in the city. According to government authorities interviewed at City Hall, the preliminary emergency plan in place consists of: 1) collecting the dead (both human and animal) for burial in two (2) mass graves (body bags were being distributed) and 2) the distribution of water and purification tablets. With regards to the latter, NCHR did not witness these distributions, nor did members of the community with whom NCHR spoke confirm such distributions.
The NCHR delegation met with other community leaders to discuss the current situation and to determine the level of government intervention to date. According to several of these leaders, the government has been slow to respond. In addition to two (2) brief visits from the Prime Minister, visits have recently been made by the Minister of Public Works and a representative of the Health Ministry (who has remained in the town). On 22 September the Public Works Minister gave the city twelve (12) wheelbarrows and 36 shovels, a gesture seen by the local leaders interviewed as asinine given the extent of the damage.
These community leaders also expressed concern over the fact that the PAM (UN) and CARE are carrying out the principal amount of work, alleging that these organizations do not adequately know Gonaïves
Commentary and Recommendations
Given the state of the city, it is difficult to know where and/or how to begin humanitarian intervention. It is clear that the intervention in Gonaïves needs to be rapid as well as structured and organized, requiring national and international cooperative efforts. Aid distribution plans must be well created and security for the distribution points arranged to ensure that the most vulnerable received aid and to reduce violence and chaos. The risks for serious health problems increase exponentially as dead animals continue to pollute the water and as a lack of clean, potable water continues.
NCHR’s initial recommendations for Gonaïves are as follows:
1) The creation of an inter-ministerial commission composed of representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Public Works, and City Hall to work at removing the dead animals, debris and mud from the city streets;
2) Reinforcement of the Haitian National Police stationed in Gonaïves and surrounding areas, not only in terms of number of officers but also in terms of supplies (food, lodging, uniformes and measure of defense).