My Time with Hurricane Sandy in Haiti
27 October 2012
I knew I was in for a time when my preparatory travel email on my blackberry with my flight information told me that Haiti was forecasted for severe rain and thunderstorms for the week of my trip. It started quite innocently with light rain in Les Cayes on Tuesday morning, October 23rd. The hospital was fully functioning and meetings were productive but by the time we left in the early afternoon, the sky was grey and the rain had started to fall in fat drops with a few gusts of wind. Courtney Massaro, an industrious and compassionate American midwife who was traveling to Haiti with me and would be staying for 3 months, remarked in passing that all the drains that line the town roads were already full with dirty water after just a few hours of hard rain.
On Wednesday morning, I walked through the rain to the main hotel building (the only place with internet access) and was able to check emails, send a message to the driver to come pick me up on Friday for my return to Port au Prince, and read on CNN.com about “tropical storm Sandy” which had been placed under a hurricane watch. After a fine breakfast of coffee and toast and cassava, Cleonas, my Haitian friend and the doctor we work with in Les Cayes, picked me up at 8am in his black Nissan truck. He has his favorite Bob Marley CD that plays over and over “One love” and “I shot the sheriff” which became the backdrop for all our drives through town.
The higher parts of Les Cayes were spared, but as we approached the main quartier and street blocks, the rain was about 6 inches deep and the hospital main courtyard already seemed to be one of the worst places of flooding with about 12-15 inches of rain. The streets were eerily quiet and few people were outdoors. Even the omnipresent motos were nowhere to be seen, just large 4x4 trucks with good clearance off the ground. I was thankful that Cleonas had a good truck with sturdy tires.
The hospital was closed for everything but emergencies and seemed a bit like a ghost town in contrast to the normal bustle of patients and staff. There were several patients waiting outside the ID clinic for their scheduled appointments who were about to run out of their HIV medicines. Some wore plastic bags on their heads and a few lucky people had umbrellas or bright yellow rain jackets. Despite their difficulty in travels, they were calm and appreciative that Cleonas was able to see them and had they keys to the pharmacy to refill their HIV medicines. On our way out, we ran into the hospital director and the regional minister of health official. They were having a discussion with some people from President Martelly’s team (some of the only people I saw who had rain boots in addition to a coat) about improvements needed at the hospital while the wind gusted and the rain began to fall in sheets.
Since there is flooding at the hospital every 3-4 months, they have built a wall about 12 inches off the ground that you must step over, as a barrier to prevent flooding of the inpatient units (that currently also housed the maternity unit during a period of construction). The water had reached this 12 inch mark and had started to flood the building but the patients had nowhere else dry to go. Cleonas told me that the flooding is happening much more often in this coastal town over the past 10 years and people tend to blame global warming and deforestation for this. People have started to move to homes at higher ground, when they have the means. He said there was even a plan to raise the entire hospital up to prevent flooding so often, but it is quite expensive and has not been seriously considered.
After all the waiting outpatients had been seen, we walked through this foot high, warm, dirty water back to the safety and dryness of Cleonas’s car and Courtney headed off to help in the maternity ward. She told me that the water got higher and higher, but labor and delivery has its own pace and demands and so the women moaned and sweated and pushed their babies out into the world. At the same time, they were bleeding directly into the dirty water (the buckets routinely placed at the foot of the head to catch body fluids and other things had washed away). She watched several needles float by in the water. Overnight, these patients were transported to safer, drier ground via ambulance to a Canadian ENT clinic called Brenda.
As we were driving back through the flood waters, I was trying to remember what my father had taught me about car mechanics and exactly how high the water needs to be before the engine stops working. But, the car did a bang up job and we passed some people wading through knee high water and facing the gusts of wind and occasional branches and leaves to get where they needed to go. There was one boy with a large multicolored umbrella that he was struggling with as it filled with wind and tried to pull out of his hands.
Back at Le Manguier hotel by early afternoon, there was no electricity and definitely no internet. It is a function of living in America in the 21st century (at least for me) that having no internet is a bit like having no access to food or water. I walked through the deep pool of water that had collected in the hotel courtyard and was thankful that I had brought a few pairs of sturdy flat shoes instead of my standard set of heels. I was soaked and noticed that a tree had fallen down in front of my door, but I was just happy to get into my dry, clean room where towels and a fresh change into (mostly) clean clothes was divine. After a few hours of work on the computer, the battery had died and I was sitting mostly in the dark as the storm raged outside. I ate one of my granola bars (these came in VERY handy) and tried to read my kindle to the shifting grey/green light that was outside. Somehow fittingly, the only book on my kindle that I had not read yet was a free book that was included with the purchase, Frankenstein. It was a perfect story to reread with the storm raging outside, which concludes with Dr Frankenstein chasing his creation through the intense winter storms and seas around the northern pole.
Eventually, with no power and no food, it was an early evening to bed. One brief mention of the CNN meteorologist about tropical storm Sandy was that these storms often gather strength and are the worst at nighttime, before breaking somewhat in the morning. I was puzzled by why this might be, but can attest to the phenomenon since I awoke at 3am to cracks of thunder louder than I have ever heard in my 36 years and very hard rainfall. I was thankful my young son was not in the neighboring room since it can be hard to reassure your child when you yourself are frightened awake by this incredible noise.
On Thursday, I drank what was left of my water and trekked again through the pond to “search” for internet in the main room, with no luck. Cleonas kindly came again and we decided to try to head to the hospital to check in on Courtney and see if any patients were waiting there. There were more people outdoors but the rain was just as intense as the day before and the flooding was being accepted as fact. I joked with Cleonas that what we really needed that morning was not a car, but a good boat. Since the sickest patients had been evacuated, the hospital was even more quiet, but with several HIV patients again at the door on their precise rendezvous date with the HIC team. Courtney was also waiting for us anxiously, having walked about 3 kilometers through the flooded streets to make it to the hospital to meet us. This day, the job of filling their medications was a bit more complicated since Cleonas had the keys to the pharmacy, but no keys to the front door. After that problem was dealt with, we brought Courtney back to her place where a tiny frog about the size of my fingernail jumped onto my hand. I released him back into the world (an animal actually well equipped for the weather) and Cleonas and I worked from the Manguier conference room for the day. We heard a few helicopters landing very nearby and Cleonas told me it was UN officials and government officials who had come to see the damage to Cayes and try to help out. I am not sure what type of equipment or plan would be able to reduce that water for the Haitian people, other than moving them to higher ground and then, the passage of time and hoping/praying for the rain to stop but it seemed good that the officials were taking the tour, at least. Just after dark, the electricity came back on (the lovely ring of a generator) and I started to grow accustomed to wading through the pools of water in what had become my very smelly pair of shoes. Then, the Haitian spaghetti I had for supper was delicious.
By Friday morning, the rain had finally stopped and there were even hints of clear skies from time to time. Because of the loss of internet, my family had grown a bit worried about me and also, my driver had been told not to come pick me up (since I had not responded to emails to confirm that I still needed him.) I guess maybe my travel coordinator thought I had used one of the helicopters to fly out of Cayes or maybe walked back to Port au Prince. By the time I was able to reach him at 9am on Friday morning (thanks again to Cleonas and his cell phone), he told me he had called off his driver but would send another. The concern forefront in my mind was that I wanted to be sure to leave Les Cayes by 3pm in order to get to Port au Prince before nightfall (direct advice from Dr Jean Pape on a prior trip.) So, when 3pm came and went and the driver had still not arrived, I will admit I was getting worried. But, at 4pm, he showed up and we were off. Our pace was up to 80 miles an hour on Haitian roads with people trying to walk through the mud on the side of the road or ride their bicycles or motos. The trip was further complicated by heavy rain in parts and a few places where there were big streams with brown muddy water crossing the road, but my driver was very good and I even learned some Creole along the way (como o ye li = what is your name). I made it safely to the hotel parking lot by 7:30 and there was even an open air concert in a nearby stadium with hundreds of Haitians singing and dancing to the music while a spotlight aimed into the sky turned round and round. It was a fitting end to a long but interesting day.
Now I can say that I have lived through a hurricane, something that you just don’t learn to cope with growing up in Vermont. But, the true and real difficulty is for all the Haitian people who live on very little. A storm like this is devastating when you live under a tin roof with your family and in a part of Les Cayes or Petit Goave that is prone to flooding. I was able to see firsthand this difficulty and the grace of the Haitians in coping with situations that are not even imaginable for most people in the US. They deserve better and it is my sincere hope that someone will have creative solutions to the big problems of unemployment, unpredictable weather patterns with flooding and deforestation. I am on my way back home today, but already looking forward to my next chance to return soon.