(This story was originally published October 14, 2008.)
KENSCOFF, Haiti -- Plush mansions and concrete shacks perch precariously on the hillside of this steep green mountaintop retreat, miles from the storm-ravaged cities of Cabaret and Gonaives.
With the brick-red topsoil quickly eroding and few trees to hold what's left, a heavy downpour can easily trigger a landslide, sending the hills crashing down, washing away homes, uprooting crops.
Haiti's crumbling hillsides have made the country vulnerable to flash floods and lethal landslides, but that vulnerability has come into sharp focus recently, following four consecutive killer storms in less than 30 days.
Fay, Hanna, Gustav and Ike cut trails of death and destruction through this already impoverished nation, leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless and a coastal town in the northwestern corner buried in mud from floodwaters.
Haphazard farming techniques, poorly constructed homes on unregulated land, years of neglecting rivers and storm canals, lax enforcement of environmental laws -- have all left Haiti's landscape in a particularly fragile state. Even heavy rain showers can create havoc.
The United States Agency for International Development estimates that only 1.5 percent of Haiti is still forested, compared to 60 percent in 1923 and 28 percent in the neighboring Dominican Republic today. Approximately 30 million trees are cut down annually in Haiti, according to the USAID.
"The whole country is facing an ecological disaster, " said Haiti's new prime minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis. "We cannot keep going on like this. We are going to disappear one day. There will not be 400, 500 or 1,000 deaths. There are going to be a million deaths."
Waterlogged Gonaives, sitting like a bowl on a flat plain between the ocean and barren mountains, only tells part of the story of Haiti's environmental crisis.
As Tropical Storm Hanna pounded the port city last month, Pierre-Louis and a government convoy tried to reach there.
They couldn't get through.
"On the road there, we almost died, " Pierre-Louis said.
Boulders crashed down the mountainside, bringing a cascade of muddy water.
Two of the government SUVs were washed out by the water on the Nacional, the road connecting the capital of Port-au-Prince to Gonaives and Cap-Haïtien.
"You could see all this water falling down with rocks and mud, " Pierre-Louis said.
She ended up traveling to the devastation by air.
"Everyone is talking about Gonaives and Cabaret, but people forget this is a national catastrophe, " said Arnaud Dupuy of the United Nation's Development Program with responsibility for the environment.
"Port-au-Prince one day will suffer the same fate. There are bidonvilles [shantytowns] in the hills, the mountains are deforested, all of the ravines and canals are obstructed, clogged with plastic bottles."
This is not the first time Haiti has been wracked by natural disaster.
Last year, 20 people died in Cabaret after the Betel River burst over its banks.
During Hurricane Ike last month, the same river swelled and killed more than a dozen children with its raging floodwaters.
In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed an estimated 3,000 Haitians, most in Gonaives, when the three rivers leading into the city roiled down the denuded mountains loaded with boulders and muck.
"With all of these disasters happening now, we have to ask, 'What have we been doing wrong?' " said environmentalist Jane Wynne, who has spent her life trying to get Haitians to change their lifestyles to help the country avoid devastation.