As Irma continued to barrel its way toward the island of Hispaniola Wednesday, Haitian officials sought to reassure the population that all was under control despite waiting until the last minute to order evacuations of flood-prone and high-risk areas in the northern departments and issue warnings of the storm’s catastrophic impact.
“I am asking you to be very vigilant and to listen to the advisories when they tell you to leave from coastal areas, leave from areas near the ocean,” Prime Minister Guy Lafontant told the nation in between meetings with Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection and representatives of international donor agencies, including the World Health Organization.
Irma is expected to affect five regions of Haiti: the North, Northeast, Northwest, Artibonite and the Central Plateau. Concerns ranged from flooding and deadly mudslides to blocked roads and a resurgence of cholera and other sanitary issues.
Lafontant said the Haiti National Police had been put on high alert, and the country’s army corps of engineers would be deployed to the northwest region of the country where roads are more likely to be cut off due to landslides and flooding. Earth-moving equipment also had been pre-positioned, he said, along the main highway connecting the capital of Port-au-Prince with the northern region, which is expected to be heavily impacted by Irma.
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“I give you the guarantee that even if it means we have to walk somewhere, we will be there with the population ... while Irma is passing,” Lafontant said.
Still, some aid workers remained concerned about the country’s preparation and decision to wait until Thursday to order the evacuation of some northern communities that could be impacted by Irma as early as Thursday night.
The question was raised during a planning meeting, for example, with Haitian disaster preparedness officials. Their response was that schools weren’t ordered closed until Tuesday and setting up shelters required time.
Schoolchildren dressed in uniforms were, nonetheless, seen walking through the streets of the capital on Wednesday morning, headed to class. Their parents were unaware that the ministry of education had sent out a late-afternoon bulletin announcing that all schools, public and private, would be closed for the rest of the week.
During the meeting, it was also noted that despite the disaster office’s social media campaign on Irma’s possible dangers and how residents should prepare, many, including aid workers, were not receiving storm-related text messages being sent out by the two main cellphone companies.
Maarten Boute, chairman of the board of telecom giant Digicel, said the company sent out seven million text messages on Irma Tuesday. He acknowledged that some people may not have received them, or may have gotten them late — or not read them.
Haitians have become so inundated with texts over the years that Boute said he doesn’t believe they are effective because “people don’t believe them anymore.”
“We shouldn’t be blasting them with messages,” Boute said.
Still, the company sent out additional messages on Wednesday, this time directed at Haitians in the regions that could be most impacted by Irma, and as of Thursday Haitians will receive a notification after every cellphone call warning them that “Haiti is under threat of Irma, evacuate.”
On Wednesday, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced that it’s sending experts on crisis recovery to the Caribbean.
“The hurricane may severely impact people’s livelihoods — directly affecting women, men and children — impacting crucial activities for people, communities and entire countries such as agriculture, fisheries and small and medium enterprises,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Jessica Faieta.
While the storm has already reached several smaller Caribbean islands, it is forecast to potentially hit the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. UNDP is ready to provide support at the request of the respective governments, the agency said in a release.