Chronicle of a disaster foretold

By: Laura Wagner

On Monday, October 3, my friend Claudine St. Fleur’s father was supposed to send her provisions from Degerme, their home community in the mountains above Abricots, a town on the far southwest coast of Haiti, west of the larger town of Jérémie. He grows yams, plantains and breadfruit in the fertile red earth abutting their lakou, the traditional Haitian family homestead, and catches fish in the sea a short walk from their front door. Whenever he can, he sends crops and salted fish to Port-au-Prince. It is one of the many ways that rural farmers support their children who live and attend school in the capital, where food is expensive.

But by October 3, a travel ban was in effect between Haiti’s departments, so he did not hike down the mountain to Abricots with a heavy plastic sack filled with food that day. He did not ride to Jérémie to send that food to Port-au-Prince aboard a crowded passenger ferry. Instead, he stayed home and prepared as best he could for the hurricane that was coming, bracing his family for this latest blow.

This is not a natural disaster. There is no such thing as a natural disaster. Disasters are the result of socioeconomic factors and “slow violence,” and poor and marginalized people, be they in crowded urban neighborhoods or faraway rural communities, disproportionately bear the long-term effects. Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, like the 2010 earthquake, are what historian Laurent Dubois termed “aftershocks of history” — catastrophes created and exacerbated by the centuries of political, ecological and social histories that preceded them.

Degerme, before and after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Laura Wagner (before) and Claudine St. Fleur (after)

Much international news has said that Haiti is devastated. Days before Matthew made landfall, commentators pointed to the still-open wounds of the January 12, 2010 earthquake — the perhaps 60,000 people still living in precarious camps in and around Port-au-Prince — as reason to panic about the impending storm. “Haiti had only just begun rebuilding from a devastating earthquake six years ago when Hurricane Matthew tore through the small Caribbean nation,” begins a lead story on CNN.

But the far south of Haiti, the place hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew, was not physically damaged in the earthquake. In the days after the quake, people in Degerme tried in vain to reach their loved ones in Port-au-Prince, across what was in that moment an impossible distance. “The phone just rang and rang and no one picked up,” recalled Claudine’s cousin Bazelet. “No one responded, and that was when we really started to panic. Everyone was calling and we couldn’t reach anyone at all.” Finally they learned that Melise, Claudine’s aunt with whom she had lived since she was a teenager, had died in the rubble in the house where she had lived and worked. Her death had a ripple effect in Degerme that was economic as well as emotional and social: Melise had used her meager earnings to support her extended family.

And in the weeks and months the earthquake, Grand’Anse and places like it were a refuge to people living in the dusty congested capital. The beauty and abundance of Grand’Anse’s mountains made all the starker the contrast with the deprivation and IDP camps of the capital, which Bazelet’s charming poem captures.

Bazelet’s poem

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, many people living in Port-au-Prince temporarily moved back to the provinces, where it was safer and calmer. In the end, almost everyone came back. But Jérémie was still home. Port-au-Prince was the place people had to be, for school or work or opportunity, but Jérémie was the beloved. Jérémie among Haitian cities was particularly beautiful. It is called the City of Poets.

The 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew are different. The first leveled Haiti’s major metropolitan center; the second obliterated a huge swath of the country far from the capital, including towns, villages, fields, and places like Degerme: small homes and lakous scattered through the mountains. The first arrived suddenly and lasted for 35 interminable seconds. In Haiti and abroad, we watched the slow approach of the second on our TV, computer, and smartphone screens: a gathering, glowing Doppler mass, larger than Haiti itself. The “best” houses to be in during an earthquake are the worst to be in during a hurricane. In the earthquake, seemingly solid houses with heavy cement roofs were the deadliest. In a Category 4 hurricane, any kind of building is at risk of being swept away — but especially those with lightweight roofs of sheet metal or palm.

The earthquake and Hurricane Matthew are really two sides of the coin of extreme centralization: urban overpopulation on one hand, and a lack of regional infrastructure on the other.

Haiti’s centralization is no accident. In the 19th century, people were designated paysans on their birth certificates and required permission to enter cities, thus keeping the rural peasantry and city residents geographically and socially apart. The concentration of political, economic, and military power in the capital deepened under the US marine occupation (1915–1934), during which regional port activities and provincial budgets were diminished, thus strengthening Port-au-Prince and suffocating the provinces. The pattern continued during the 1940s and 1950s as the state modernized and developed the capital at the expense of the countryside. The centralization of Haiti became total under François Duvalier, whose right-wing regime was largely supported by the United States. State power was concentrated in the hands of a single, omnipotent “president-for-life” who, via his dreaded Tontons Macoutes, used total systematized violence against opponents, and perceived opponents, of the state. Throughout the countryside, Macoutes seized land from peasant farmers, casting the rural population into deeper poverty. In the 1960s, Duvalier closed the provincial ports to international trade, so that no one could consolidate power or invade from outside the capital.

And so it came to be that Haiti’s population is divided into moun lavil — city people — and moun andeyò — people from the countryside, literally “outside people.”

For there is Port-au-Prince, and then there is everything beyond. And so nearly everything came to be in the capital: most schools, most hospitals, most higher education, most money, most information, and most aid organizations. And so Haiti became not only the infamous “Republic of NGOs,” but also the “Republic of Port-au-Prince”, a nation suffering from what Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot and others have termed “urban macrocephaly.”

Abricots, post-Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Jessica Hsu

The earthquake was an unparalleled disaster precisely because it occurred in an overpopulated capital city of perhaps three million people, many of whom live in fragile cement bidonvilles sprawling up the hillsides of Port-au-Prince. Most people in Port-au-Prince, especially most poor people, are not natives of Port-au-Prince. They, or their parents or grandparents, are like Claudine: migrants from the countryside who have come to chèche lavi, look for a better life, in the capital. It is a city of cinderblocks, a city of walls.

This meant that post-earthquake aid — however misguided, flawed, corrupt, top-down and ultimately disastrous — was immediate. Humanitarian organizations were already headquartered in Port-au-Prince. Step beyond the tarmac of the international airport and you were in the heart of the crisis.

Ironically, the same distance that made Grand’Anse a haven after the earthquake is now part of the catastrophe: Hurricane Matthew is so devastating because much of southwest Haiti is difficult to reach. The single bridge connecting the southern peninsula to the rest of the country collapsed, and for the first few days, no one could reach the south at all. It took days to get firsthand reports of the situation. The death toll is unknowable but keeps climbing. The first images to emerge show Jérémie demolished. UNDP estimates that 98 percent of the buildings in the city are gone.

Abricots after the storm. Photo credit: Jessica Hsu

Abricots is even further west from Jérémie. An achingly beautiful town of beaches and palms, called le Paradis des Indiens, because the Taíno people believed they would there go after they died. When my friend Jessica Hsu, an activist-anthropologist working with Haitian grassroots organzations, finally reached Abricots from Port-au-Prince via boat on Saturday, she began to cry upon at last seeing a friend of whom she had had no news.

“Abricots is toutouni,” Jess said. “Abricots is naked.”

“I hate to say this,” her friend replied. “But it reminds me of pictures of Hiroshima.”

In the summers of 2010 and 2012, I spent several weeks with Claudine’s extended family in Degerme. Sometimes it did feel idyllic, the sea as jewel-blue beyond the cliffs, children splashing one another in natural tide pools, men playing dominos and telling jokes under the shade of a mango tree, tidy houses painted pink and blue, the air perfumed with ripe guavas, avocados so fresh they were almost sweet. At dusk each day, Claudine’s dad would call his chickens and they would come running from all corners of the lakou and flutter en masse into the tree to sleep.

It was also poor. Nearly every home has a dilapidated cement latrine out back, built and then forgotten years ago by one NGO or another, which quickly filled up and fell into disuse. Women, men, and children work hard harvesting yams, manioc, peanuts, and other crops; making fishing nets; hauling heavy buckets of water home. The river where everyone bathes is a steep, muddy hike from most of the houses, as is the spring where the community gets its drinking water. With the exception of a mobile clinic run by Paradis des Indiens, an educational organization founded more than forty years ago that continues to work in the area, the nearest high schools and clinics are in the town of Abricots, perhaps an hour away on foot. Cars cannot reach Degerme.

It seems like a cliché to say that people there were deeply gracious, generous with their homes, their food, their time, their stories and their lives, except that it is entirely true. It is no secret that anthropologists profit personally as well as professionally from the kindness of people compared to whom we have great power and wealth, and I am no exception.

Degerme, drying out after the storm. Photo credit: Claudine St. Fleur

The first days after Hurricane Matthew were like the first days after the earthquake, only in reverse: in Port-au-Prince, people remained in a sickening holding pattern, awaiting news from their loved ones in southern Haiti. They called and called, but they could not reach anyone. Though Abricots is around 200 kilometers away from the capital as the crow flies (approximately the distance between Philadelphia and Washington, DC), it might as well have been the moon. For people in Port-au-Prince, the experience was nearly the same as it was for people abroad: waiting for news, waiting for word, panicking. Claudine and her cousins, like countless others from the southern peninsula, heard nothing from their relatives for six days, from late Monday night until Saturday evening. They did not know what happened to Claudine’s sweet-tempered father who has worked so hard to give his children an easier life than his own, or her grandfather with his pipe of tobacco, or her sharp-tongued grandmother who likes to cuss out her grandkids to their endless amusement, or her aunt the medsen fèy who taught me what leaves and herbs are good for diarrhea and colds and heat rash, or six-year-old Ashkaïna, the bright baby of the family who is everybody’s boss.

It is surreal to hope that the people you care about have lost only their homes and livelihoods.

On Saturday, a neighbor from Degerme at last called from Abricots, where communication had finally been restored, and they learned that all the members of their family had survived Hurricane Matthew. “It’s like a gulp of cold water going down my throat in the midst of a terrible heat. I am so happy,” Claudine texted. Preliminary assessments done by the municipal government indicate that 10 people were killed in the rural sections of Abricots, and 17 were seriously injured during the hurricane. However, the casualties were less severe than in some other areas because the local government spread the word and evacuated many families who lived closest to the water. Nearly all the homes and crop fields in the area were destroyed. A series of spontaneous community-based shelters sprung up for the survivors, in schools, churches, and the few remaining homes. Claudine’s family is sleeping in the church in a neighboring community. Many others are sleeping out in the open, or in caves, with no shelter nearby. Claudine and her cousins in Port-au-Prince are buying chlorine tablets for cholera prevention, tarps, and other basic necessities and trying to travel home early this week.

Two days after the hurricane, a friend in Port-au-Prince emailed: “There’s no communication between the entire south and the rest of the country. It’s only people who have managed to speak on the radio that have told us how severe the situation is. There are other places with a lot of problems too… I heard someone on the radio say that this catastrophe is more significant than what happened on January 12, 2010. I was shocked and I didn’t agree, because of the number of people who died or were maimed in 2010. But when I realized that the part of the country that provided food for the rest of the country was completely devastated (there are no trees left, agricultural production is totally gone) I asked myself if he wasn’t right.”

This disaster foretold is a disaster still unfolding. Like the earthquake, Hurricane Matthew will have repercussions long after the moment of landfall and far beyond the immediately affected area. The destruction of houses is only part of it.

One of the most fertile and self-sufficient areas of Haiti has been shattered, trees and crops uprooted and drowned; people say that all the yams, manioc and cassava were ripped out of the ground. The UN World Food Programme estimates that fully 100% of crops in Grand’Anse were destroyed. The probable impact of this cannot be understated. It is utterly devastating.

It is poignant now to think of Claudine’s father, planning to send his harvest to his children in Port-au-Prince on October 3, because now everything he grew is gone, and it will be months at least before he can harvest anything again. Ironically, it is now his family in Port-au-Prince bringing food to him, rather than the other way around. Hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers whose existence was precarious before the hurricane have seen all their livestock, all their livelihood, swept away. The floodwaters have already caused an increase in cholera cases, and it is expected to rise. (Do not presume, however, that disaster automatically leads to cholera. Cholera epidemics cannot happen in a place with no cholera bacteria, however poor the country, and Haiti did not have cholera until the UN peacekeeping operation introduced it in 2010.) Food prices in the south of Haiti are already skyrocketing. People may emigrate en masse from the decimated southern peninsula to Port-au-Prince — to the already-congested, overpopulated capital of an already too centralized land.

We will hear the same tropes and narratives about Haiti that always surface in moments like these. Some are more insidious than others. Lauding the Haitian people for their “resilience” is racism dressed up as accolade — as though Black bodies and Black souls can take more pain, suffering and brutality than other people can.

A missionary posted photos on Facebook that showed women with their breasts exposed and an adolescent boy wearing no pants. In one image, several people run toward the camera, including a child in motion, one foot on the ground. Someone has commented, “The smiling amputee reminds me of the earthquake. They have been through so much and still they rejoice in any gesture.” Under that, another person has replied, “I think his leg is behind him. I don’t think he’s an amputee.” Such images reinforce the idea of Haiti as a place of crisis, a place of helplessness, a doomed place, the object of pity.

Damaged trees. Photo credit: Bazelet St. Louis

Know that the crisis is real, but it is anything but inevitable, organic or God-given. It is structural and historical. It is not that certain places and people simply are vulnerable. Certain places and people are made vulnerable, through identifiable processes and events. Haiti’s poverty is not the tragic exception to progress and modernity. Places like the United States and France are wealthy and powerful because Haiti and places like Haiti are poor and vulnerable. We are here because they are there.

And know, too, that after this catastrophe, as in so many others, people are not waiting, hands outstretched in need or supplication, to be saved. Haitian people have had to fight for their lives since before there was Haiti.

I was not an anthropologist of disaster by design, but became one by circumstance, because in the relatively short period of time I have worked in Haiti, the country has seen the earthquake, and the cholera epidemic, and now Hurricane Matthew.

And we anthropologists of disaster continue to call: There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster. Disasters do not just happen; disasters are caused.

The Haitian proverb says malè pa gen klakson. Misfortune doesn’t sound an alarm to warn you. It’s not true, though. The whole of Haitian history has been a warning bell. It just turns out that even if you know the storm is coming, but you have no means to run and no place to hide, the warning doesn’t matter.

Laura Wagner is the Radio Haiti Project Archivist at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where she is processing the archive of Radio Haiti-Inter, Haiti’s first and most revolutionary independent radio station. She received her BA from Yale University and her PhD in anthropology from UNC Chapel Hill, where her research focused on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She is also a fiction and nonfiction writer; her first novel, Hold Tight Don’t Let Go (also about the Haiti earthquake), was published by Abrams in 2015.

If you would like to support the rebuilding of Paradis des Indiens educational, health, and sustainable community development programs in Abricots, please visit http://www.friendsofpdi.org/

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