Haitian interim President Jocelerme Privert warned Haitians Sunday to make preparations for Hurricane Matthew, which no longer threatened just the southern peninsula, but all of Haiti.
The heavily deforested nation is not only at risk of mudslides, but also serious flooding that could lead to the loss of lives and damage to homes. There are also concerns about a spike in cholera, the waterborne disease that has killed more than 9,000 and sickened more than 700,000 Haitians since it was introduced to the country six years ago this month.
It’s not just cholera residents are concerned about. Next Sunday’s rerun presidential and legislative elections could also be affected by the storm. Privert said the elections remain as scheduled for Oct. 9. However, one official said they will decide if a postponement is necessary later in the week after they have a better idea about Matthew’s impact.
Preparation, Privert said in a national address, cannot wait. He called on those living in houses at risk of collapsing under rain and wind to seek refuge with family and friends, and for those living along the coast to evacuate.
Privert also announced that schools would close on Monday and Tuesday so that many of them can be used as shelters. Haiti suspended inter-departmental travel and public outdoor markets Sunday and the Interior Ministry announced late in the day that both international airports in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien would be closed from 6 a.m. Monday to 6 a.m. Wednesday.
“My Haitian people,” Privert said, “don’t be stubborn, don’t think ‘God is Good’ [and will take care of you].”
“The message we are giving is important. You will have to evacuate all of the areas that represent a danger for you,” he said. “The life of every person is important to us.”
Haiti’s 10 million citizens were told to heed all warnings from authorities in the coming hours so that “if the hurricane comes to Haiti, the damages are as less as possible,” the president said, speaking in a national address from the National Emergency Operations Center (COUN) Sunday afternoon.
Since Saturday, workers in orange shirts from the Office of Civil Protection were mobilizing across the mountainous country, warning citizens of the pending storm. They also were trying to buy hurricane supplies.
Haitian officials said they did not get the same quantity of aid, including hurricane supplies, from foreign donors this year as in previous years. And while they “drastically reduced spending,” they remain strapped for cash to address damages if Matthew hits the country hard.
“We will not beg, but we will not refuse either,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph told the Miami Herald.
Joseph said they had several tons of rice, which had previously been donated by Japan, that they plan to use if need be. There were also water and mattresses in stock. On Sunday morning, France had asked whether it could dispatch two surveillance airplanes into Haitian airspace to survey the southern coastlines. The government gave the O.K.
The U.S. Agency for International Development deployed two disaster response teams to Haiti and Jamaica Sunday to help coordinate relief efforts in the region.
“The biggest threat we have over our heads is water,” Joseph said. “When you hear hurricane, it means rain, it means wind, it means the sea rising.”
Joseph said there were 1,300 shelters available for the country that were able to host 340,000 people. He also clarified another statistic. He said there were 381 firefighters for the country — not 30 as someone said the previous day during a hurricane preparation meeting. He said there were 30 for Port-au-Prince.
“We are very concerned about the country’s vulnerability,” Joseph said. “We’ve redoubled our efforts to reduce the risk for the population.”
In all, he said, there were 18,196 government employees already deployed or ready to be deployed to help the population if the storm were to hit hard.
In Port-au-Prince, winds were beginning to pick up and it was drizzling on and off Sunday afternoon. Bulldozers could be seen in some parts of the capital, clearing streets of mountains of trash. Many canals, however, remained clogged with trash.
By 5 p.m. the rain had also started to pour in the southeastern coastal city of Jacmel.
Officials did not discuss money during the national address. But Joseph conceded that the cash-strapped country was working with very little and did not have the financial means that it had in years past. What it does have, he said, is manpower, which is being tapped throughout the country.
“We have no choice but to mobilize throughout the country,” he said. “I also believe that it’s an occasion for us to show our resilience, to show the capacity that we have in the face of adversity.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti authorized family members of U.S. government employees to leave the country and recommended that U.S. citizens do the same. The embassy will be closed Monday and Tuesday.
In Petionville, a tiny suburb above Port-au-Prince, at least one gas station had already boarded up Sunday evening.
Dr. Jean Pierre Brisma, who was buying groceries at Big Star Supermarket in Petionville, said he is concerned about Matthew and the damage it could create.
"I don't think the country is ready," he said. Brisma said recent rains, which have triggered flooding in Petionville and elsewhere, show what a little bit of rain can do.
"If the government doesn't stop people from building anywhere and how they want, we will always be vulnerable to hurricanes," he said.