Vulnerable Haiti escapes worst of Hurricane Irma but flooding risks continue

Haiti appeared to have escaped the worst of Hurricane Irma as it barreled across its northern coastline Thursday, but authorities cautioned that the vulnerable nation remains in a danger zone.

"It's still too early to say we're safe," said Dr. Jerry Chandler, head of the country's disaster response office, the Office of Civil Protection, as Irma battered the nearby Turks and Caicos and reports trickled in that the Dajabón River, also known as Massacre River, in northeast Haiti had overflowed.

"We are still in the dangerous area," Chandler said. "We are getting reports [but] no major incidents thus far. But we are still looking out."

While the storm ripped off rooftops, flooded parts of Ouanaminthe in northeast Haiti and caused at least one national road connecting the north and center pars of the country to be impassable, initial reports revealed that Irma did not cause the kind of damage and flooding many had feared.

"The water is rising in some places, but we don't yet have flooding," Cap-Haitien Mayor Yvrose Pierre said late Thursday as the city continued to experience rain and strong wind gusts on and off throughout the day.

To get a more accurate picture of Irma's impact, Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant announced that he had formed a commission to "rapidly" report on the storm within the next 24 to 48 hours. Lafontant made the announcement during an evening press conference at the prime minister's official residence as cabinet members sought to blunt criticism that they were not prepared for the potentially catastrophic weather event.

Earlier in the day as the storm approached Haiti, Pierre and several other mayors said they were forced to dip into their meager coffers to stock shelters. They contradicted central government officials who reported having sent container-loads of food, and bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment to respond to blocked roads in the five regions most likely to feel the brunt of Irma.

On Tuesday, as Hurricane Irma menaced the French West Indies, Interior Minister Max Rudolph Saint-Albin announced that he had unblocked millions of dollars in government funds and put it at the mayors’ disposal.

But on Thursday, as the central government ordered police to evacuate people in coastal communities by force, the mayors were wondering how they would cope in the aftermath.

“We are totally vulnerable,” Port-de-Paix Mayor Josue Alusma told a local Port-au-Prince radio station. “We don’t have any equipment.”

Christian Joseph, the mayor of Môle-Saint-Nicolas, a city on Haiti’s northwestern tip, amplified Alusma’s concerns.

“We’ve assumed our responsibilities but when we look at other countries that have infrastructure and we see what Irma did, and our vulnerability, there is tremendous worry,” he told the Miami Herald. “All we know is that if there is one thing we believe in, it is in God.”

Joseph said his city had five main shelters for its population of more than 34,000. He and his assistant mayors, along with disaster volunteers from the local Office of Civil Protection, had fanned out across the rural city, pleading with residents to evacuate fishing villages and other high-risk areas.

But the city had little to offer those who took him up on the offer.

“For the shelters,” he said, “we don’t have anything.”

Joseph said he had appealed to Food for the Poor and Caritas, a Catholic charity, to provide food for the shelters. And he asked the government to send a team of engineers to help because the Ministry of Public Works didn't have enough equipment to help unblock roads.

Any amount of rainfall, Joseph said, meant “two to three minutes later, you see water entering the city. It’s almost certain we are going to be flooded,” he said.

Late Thursday, as hurricane-force winds battered the islands of Salt Cay, Grand Turk and South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands chain, Joseph said he did not yet know if there was any damage in his city. It had been raining on and off, he said.

To the west in Cap-Haitien, Pierre also was trying to make do with few resources for the shelters, well aware that her city is located in an area prone to both flooding and landslides.

“We have certain areas that are vulnerable to flooding,” she said. “We are evacuating the people who live in the flood zones and putting them in the shelters. But when you put people in shelters, you have to give them food, water, milk for the babies.”

Chandler confirmed that two people were injured in Grande-Rivière-du-Nord on the outskirts of Cap-Haitien during the storms' passing. He said they were taken to the hospital and recovering.

Like Joseph, Pierre said, she had to use what she had in her own meager coffers.

“We’ve yet to receive anything,” she said of the disbursements from the central government.

Pierre also said she had not yet received any food supplies, or noticed any pre-positioned equipment in the region.

“We haven’t seen any equipment. Maybe they are en route,” she said.

Saint-Albin, the interior minister, said the money had been sent to the bank accounts of the various mayors. But Pierre as well as the mayors of Port-de-Paix and Môle-Saint-Nicolas said they still hadn’t been able to use the new funds, part of a long bureaucratic process requiring a lot of paperwork.

“The bank that we have to go to is [45 miles] from us,” said Joseph, the mayor of Môle-Saint-Nicolas. “We don’t have the time. We don’t have anything. So we just mobilized the Office of Civil Protection to do what we need and afterward we'll do reimbursements.”

Outside of 530 Haitians who Pierre said went into shelters in Cap-Haitien, it's unclear just how many made it into shelters before Irma's arrival.

As the assessment gets underway, Sandra Honoré, the head of the soon-to-be-departing United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said that the mission stands ready to assist with the approximately 1,000 engineering and military peacekeepers who remain in country.

"MINUSTAH is not of the same level of course as it was in October when Hurricane Matthew struck, but we will support to the extent of our capacity," Honoré said.

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