In storm-battered Haiti, the tension is rising

Fritza Charles is pushed out of the way as a Haitian National Police officer takes a man away from a protest where branches were spread across the middle of the road in Hock, Haiti, to block a convoy of food Saturday, Oct. 18, 2016.
Fritza Charles is pushed out of the way as a Haitian National Police officer takes a man away from a protest where branches were spread across the middle of the road in Hock, Haiti, to block a convoy of food Saturday, Oct. 18, 2016.

Screaming “misery, misery, hunger is killing us,” residents in this hurricane-damaged southwestern city revolted Saturday, blocking the main coastal road with chunks of trees and branches to stop a food convoy.

The angry confrontation occurred as evidence mounted of calamitous destruction wreaked by Hurricane Matthew last week in the rugged and largely rural terrain of western Haiti, which has been left largely incommunicado by toppled cellphone towers and washed-out roads.

Haiti’s officially confirmed death toll stands at 336 since Matthew roared ashore as a Category 4 hurricane Tuesday, and that number is expected to rise sharply as contact is re-established with the isolated west.

That contact might, if Saturday’s events in Torbeck are any indication, sometimes be fraught with tension. The convoy laden with bags of rice, water and sodas was sent by Haitian presidential candidate Jovenel Moise, said lawmaker Herve Charles as he ordered a group of young men to remove the remnants of the blockade of fallen trees that backed traffic up half a mile in both directions.

“The people are in a dire situation. They lost everything. They don’t have water, they don’t have food,” an exasperated Charles said. “So they just revolted.

“They need water, they need food, they need zinc sheeting [for rebuilding homes],” he added. “I understand them, but this is a crime. It’s another crime.”

The leader of the protest: Fritzna Charles, a Miami resident who said she was there to support the residents.

Asked why she blocked the street, she screamed: “Because this is what they do in Haiti!”

Charles said she decided to join the others in the mutiny after they saw a convoy of food pass their storm-damaged homes and head in the direction of Port Salut, a coastal town battered by Matthew, without stopping in their neighborhood.

“We said, ‘Hey, everything is going down,’ ” she said. “We need some help too.”

Riot police, however, weren’t having it. As they came to unblock the road, one of them took his riot shield and slammed it again Charles’ face after pulling her up off a tree limb where she had staged an impromptu protest. The police manhandled several others as well and finally used tear gas to break up the crowd.

The frustration of storm victims is increasingly worrisome for international aid officials. On Saturday, the first of five U.S. Agency for International Development cargo planes arrived in Port-au-Prince carrying relief supplies for storm victims. But those supplies, which were loaded onto a U.S. marine helicopter, had not reached the southwestern rural area, residents said.

Earlier in the day, a local radio station issued an SOS to Haiti’s National Police, saying that it had received reports that southbound food convoys were being pillaged by the population along the route.

“What I see in Les Cayes makes me afraid,” said Pierre Leger, an industrialist whose vetiver processing factory — vetiver is the plant, growing in abudance in the region, that provides the woodsy fragrance in men’s colognes — is a major economic pillar in the area, with 27,000 employees.

“The poor are going to get poorer, the misery will soon start to set in,” Leger said.

Leger’s factory was untouched by the storm. But the community’s coconut and banana trees weren’t as lucky, standing mostly in ruin in muddy plantations. In nearby Les Cayes, the main city, the knee-high floodwaters have subsided, leaving a trail of fallen trees, downed power lines and washed up debris.

Leger, nonetheless, said Les Cayes was “lucky” compared to Jérémie, a town about 60 miles northwest on the coast, and that is almost certainly true.

“I am outside my clinic, looking down to absolute disaster here,” Nadesha Mijoba told the Miami Herald by cellphone from the Haitian Health Foundation’s Klinik Pep Bondye-a in Jérémie.

“Any house that had a tin roof does not have a roof now. There are trees lying everywhere. The electrical poles are down. … The hotels are destroyed. Churches, forget it. I have a staff of 184 and 130 of them are homeless.”

The town’s damage fed on itself during the storm, Mijoba said, as five hours of 145 mph winds turned every new bit of wreckage into a missile that could do even more destruction.

The wreckage is even worse in the rugged mountains surrounding the town. As the clinic’s rural health agents hike down from the villages they serve, they’ve brought news that at least three small settlements were completely obliterated, Mijoba said. And, she added, there are credible — though still not formally confirmed — reports of hundreds of deaths.

“People in the mountains had no idea this was coming, and there was no preparation at all,” Mijoba said. “There’s no communication system out there that would have warned them.”

Jérémie — known as the “city of poets,” for its contributions to Haitian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries — is the capital of Grand’Anse, the province on the northwestern tip of the island. It’s where authorities fear the death toll and damage may be the worst.

And that death toll could skyrocket, Mijoba said, for an old plague is returning in the wake of the hurricane: cholera. Fourteen confirmed cases have popped up in Jérémie since the hurricane, nearly as many as the 16 recorded in the previous three months. Likely cause: hurricane-generated flood waters that washed into rural latrines, then carried raw sewage back into the rivers that supply many families with their only drinking water.

“This is just going to take off,” Mijoba warned. “We know from experience how quickly cholera infections can spread — very quickly.”

And the skeletal rural medical infrastructure will scarcely be able to withstand it, she said. Though Mijoba’s outpatient medical clinic is mostly intact after the storm, its four rural satellite clinics all lie in ruins.

The only full-service hospital in the region has, like most of the rest of Haiti’s public healthcare system, been closed by a strike since April. Though some of the staff began drifting back after the hurricane, Mijoba said, the hospital has no medicine or supplies because it was closed for so long.

“We’ve put all the cholera cases there, because we’re trying to be extremely careful about cross-contamination,” she said. “But the only way they can handle the case load right now is that a bunch of our clinic’s staff is over there helping. If the case load increases, it will collapse.”

Interim Haiti President Jocelerme Privert declared three days of mourning starting Sunday, the day Haiti was supposed to hold rerun presidential elections and legislative balloting. The vote has been postponed in the wake of the disaster.

Foreign aid to Haiti is already ramping up, but Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — who returned Saturday from a day trip to Port-au-Prince — said Haitian officials don’t want donations of food, water, or clothing.

“The things we would think they would need, they actually have very well organized,” Gimenez told reporters Saturday night at Miami International Airport after returning from the hastily arranged trip. “What they need is an infusion of money.”

Besides cash, Gimenez said officials requested school supplies, building materials, industrial-sized pumps and construction equipment.

Jean Monestime, the Haiti-born chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, was on the trip, too. He said the group was on the ground for six hours for meetings and did not tour any areas damaged by Hurricane Matthew.

Monestime said he’s meeting with local Haitian-American business leaders and elected officials next week to plan a fund-raising effort.

He said while the United States flooded Haiti with donated staples after the 2010 earthquake, the island nation is wary this time around of Haitian retailers and wholesalers seeing demand wither from too much charity.

“The economy of Haiti actually crumbled after the earthquake because of an over-donation of everything,” he said. “There have been a lot of lessons learned since the earthquake of 2010 about what to do and what not to do.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

A previous version of this article misstated the winds in  Jérémie. They were recorded at 145 mph.