Joël Janéus walked through the densely populated slum, moving slowly amid the winding maze of narrow corridors and tin shacks, screaming.
“Get out of here, Get out of here,” the assistant mayor of Haiti’s largest slum, Cité Soleil, yelled as he stuck his bald head in doorways and climbed over muddy paths and wooden canoes in the drizzling rain. “What’s coming is bad.”
Residents, hearing Janéus’ panicked plea, asked in a dismissive tone, “Where to? How?”
Haiti’s cash-strapped government has asked residents living along the country’s coastline to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Matthew. And while some, doubting the forecasts, have stubbornly refused to evacuate flood-prone communities such as Leogane and the southern island of Ile-a-Vache, others say they would like to protect themselves, but lacked the ability to do so.
“If they relocate us, I’ll go,” said Amita Lestin, 60, a resident in Wharf Jeremie, which is partly built on trash. “But how? We don’t have anywhere to go and no way to get there.”
Hurricane Matthew is expected to bring sea surges between 7 and 10 feet when it hits Haiti on Monday and Tuesday. While the southern peninsula is most at risk, all of Haiti is under threat, officials say. Cité Soleil is located in the Port-Au-Prince metropolitan area.
Cité Soleil sits below sea-level, which means hundreds of thousands of people possibly being affected by storm surge and rain.
“A total catastrophe,” said Cité Soleil Mayor Jean Hislain Frederic. “The way Cité Soleil is built, it’s a bowl so all of the water from Petionville, Delmas, Kenscoff, Port-au-Prince — all invade the people of Cité Soleil.”
For days, Frederic and Janéus have been hitting the airwaves pleading for help with finding shelters and buses to move an estimated 100,000 residents out of danger. Nearby Delmas Mayor Wilson Jeudy refused their request, they said, while Port-au-Prince Mayor Youry Chevry never responded.
Petionville Mayor Dominique Saint Roc did respond, offering to give shelter to up to 200 people.
“We don’t have any buses,” Janéus said.
Nevertheless, he and Frederic walked the streets of the slum Monday, pleading with residents to leave. At the forefront of their minds, they said, is 2004’s Hurricane Jeanne, which killed at least 3,000 people in the city of Gonaives after residents were caught off guard in the middle of the night.
There was also Hurricane Ike in 2008, which sent frightened mothers running with their babies in the middle of the storm. What the storm’s waters didn’t sweep away, an overflowing river did, killing dozens of children.
“You always have people who are reluctant to leave,” Frederic said. “But when the danger is in front of them, when the water starts to come down, all will run. Then, we will have a bigger problem on our hands.”
The elected officials who took office three months ago have been closely following the weather updates. Matthew scares them.
“What can reach us between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. is typical of what happened in Gonaives with Jeanne and the amount of water that can invade Cité Soleil,” Janéus said. “We, in Cité Soleil, won’t be able to handle it. We will have a lot of people who die.”
There are about 500,000 people who live in Cité Soleil, mostly all of them in dilapidated housing built on debris. Officials have identified 15 shelters with a total capacity of 2,000 people, they said. Only two of the facilities are schools. Most of them are open-air, including an athletic field.
“Even if it means having people wait out the storm in the streets, it’s better than having them remain inside by the sea,” Janéus said. “To save people’s lives today, we have no other choice.”
Saving people from Matthew’s rains isn’t the only concern. There are also the trash-strewn canals that risk flooding people out of their homes. The mayors say the canals haven’t been touched by any central government in seven years.
“We didn’t create all of this trash,” Janéus said after stopping by the trash-clogged St. Georges Canal along a main road. “Do the people of Cité Soleil have money to buy food in Styrofoam containers or plastic drinks? We don’t have money to buy these things.”
Unlike in years past when a threat of hurricane meant a huge mobilization by Haiti’s central authority and the international community, that hasn’t been the case with Matthew. The government admits that it’s strapped for cash, with the Senate yet to approve the budget and foreign donations not what they used to be. More than one mayor, in recent days, has complained about lacking the finances to evacuate and shelter residents.
Cité Soleil officials said they inherited almost a $1 million debt — “mostly all of them ‘Zombie’ employees,” Janéus said — and just $686 in the city’s coffers.
“We didn’t even find a buggy,” said the Rev. Jean Enock Joseph, the chief of cabinet.
Edgar Celestin, spokesman for Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, said residents of Cité Soleil and Cite L’Eternel, another seaside slum in the capital, refused to evacuate Monday. Indeed, civil protection workers accompanied the local officials, using a bullhorn to ask people to leave. But the disaster preparedness workersdid not come with buses to transport the residents.
Meanwhile, the ocean sits less than 20 feet from Luckner Neclasse’s front door. The fisherman lives in a zinc shack with four others, including a 6-month-old baby. Neclasse said he’s weathered tropical storms and hurricanes inside his shack for 32 years. But with Matthew, he would like to leave.
“From everything I’ve heard, it’s going to be bad,” he said. Not lost on him: The storm’s threat comes 53 years to the date that another hurricane, Flora, left thousands of Haitians dead in 1963.
“When the sea is agitated, it rises and floods all of these houses here,” Neclasse said. “We live by God. When you find yourself in a situation like this, you can’t depend on the government. There is no authority around to help you.”