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Hurricane Tomas pounds Haiti

Disaster response organizations prepare for additional devastation

BY JOHN PAPE | MIAMI | November 5, 2010

Relief organization in Haiti are preparing to temporarily suspend earthquake recovery operations as Tropical Storm Tomas is expected to turn northward and hit the poverty-stricken nation head-on later this week.

Many of the ongoing relief efforts are being coordinated by American faith-based organizations, including the Church of the Brethren, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

All are among agencies providing humanitarian aid following the 7.0-magnitude January earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people and left some 1.6 million Haitians homeless. Much of the country’s infrastructure and government, including the Presidential Palace, was left in ruins.

Tomas was a Category 2 hurricane before raking St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Barbados and Martinique with winds as high as 155 km/h. By Monday, it had been downgraded to tropical storm status, but is expected to reorganize and strengthen as it treks westward before making a sharp north turn later in the week. Its current projected path puts the storm passing directly over Haiti by week’s end as a Category 1 hurricane.

All computer models agree the storm will turn north toward Haiti, but differ when that turn will occur. Regardless, it is expected to hit with torrential rains and gale-force winds.

The fear is that the rainfall will trigger catastrophic flooding since much of the national has been deforested. That flooding could bring added misery to those still homeless from the earthquake and living under the threat of a cholera outbreak.

As Tomas made its approach, Haitian authorities issued an appeal to those still living in tent cities to seek more substantial shelter.

Roy Winter with the Church of the Brethren disaster relief services has made several trips to Haiti to coordinate outreach efforts. He called Tomas the latest in a series of “challenges” Haitians have faced in recent years.

He said work teams, mostly comprised of Haitians with some assistance by volunteers from the United States, have finished building wood-and-tin shelters to temporarily house people who lost their homes in the earthquake. Those shelters, he said, have held up well under the wind and rain during this summer’s rainy season and can be used as hurricane shelters.

“They seem to be holding up well in the rain,” Winter said.

Winter also said efforts to build permanent homes will be put on hold as Tomas passes through the area, but crews will be ready to resume work as soon as the bad weather subsides.

“The crews will continue to work as long as they can. They’ll take shelter, obviously, during the height of the storm, but then they will be prepared to continue building new homes,” Winter said.

He also said the shelter buildings will be open to others, including those who are still homeless.

“They will be opened during the storm for anyone needing shelter. We are building homes and shelters as quickly as we can, but there are still homeless people,” Winter said. “We will make our shelters available to anyone needing a safe place to go.”

Winter also said he was confident the emergency shelters, which are being used as community buildings and for food distribution, and the permanent homes being built will hold up well in the storm. Experience gained building homes following an earlier hurricane helped the Brethren refine and improve the construction process.

“We built 82 homes in Haiti after a hurricane in 2008. We used that basic design and modified it a bit to make it more earthquake-hardened,” Winter said. “We were encouraged after those previous 82 homes survived the January earthquake with only a few cracks.”

The homes Brethren crews are building have three rooms with an outhouse and outdoor kitchen. Despite being modest in design, the new structures are typically superior to what victims had prior to the earthquake.

Winter also said the Church of the Brethren’s commitment to the people of Haiti was part of a permanent relationship.

“Our current focus is to build as many homes as we can and work with Haitians to improve their crops. We worked with them on their spring planting and had good success,” Winter said. “Right now, we will continue to provide assistance as long as funds are available. It’s also an open-ended relationship in that we have a church in Haiti and we will continue to support that congregation.”

The Brethren also built improvements in water and sanitation systems that are helping protect residents from the nation’s growing cholera outbreak.

“Part of our work has been to provide fresh water and proper sanitation. Where we have provided those improvements, we have had no reports of cholera or other related health issues,” Winter said.

Bill Adams, director of disaster response services for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, said his organization was working in Haiti as part of a long term, thirty-year relationship to improve the quality of life in the impoverished nation. While most of the CRWRC’s work is being done by permanent staff in Haiti, disaster response teams were keeping a close eye on the approach of Tomas.

“Right now, we’re watching very carefully to see what the storm is going to do. Both our disaster response personnel and our international teams are monitoring the situation in Haiti,” Adams said.

Adams said CRWRC is not only building houses for earthquake victims and drilling wells for potable water, but also helping in the entire community development process.

“That’s been out main role there. We are helping build core houses with an earthquake-resistant design, but also helping communities create jobs and establish businesses,” Adams said. “Much of our work is done through community-run organizations and we’re using local people because of the high unemployment rate in Haiti. We’ve been very creative there to help develop entire communities.”

Even as Haiti braces for the arrival of Tomas, a number of Caribbean island nations are cleaning up.

In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, authorities are investigating unconfirmed reports three people died in the storm, including two men who were reportedly blown off a roof. Other reports had the two men surviving the fall but being hospitalized.

Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said winds tore roofs from scores of homes and more than 1,000 people sought emergency shelter as the islands lost power. Widespread flooding triggered landslides that cut off as many as 30 roads, marooning hundreds of residents.

"I have been told that over 300 houses have suffered some level of damage," Gonsalves said Sunday. "There is also serious damage to fruit trees, bananas and other infrastructure; this is going to cost the state millions."

In neighboring St. Lucia, Prime Minister Stephenson King told a local radio station that an unidentified American tourist drowned Saturday at Cas En Bas beach and a St. Lucian woman died in a traffic accident during the storm.

Additionally, high winds reportedly ripped roofs off a hospital, a school and a stadium, and toppled a large concrete cross from the roof of a century-old church. A landslide blocked a main highway following 21 hours of sustained rainfall over the weekend.

On Sunday, dead animals floated in swollen rivers and people in the capital of Castries took to streets to clear fallen branches, broken glass and other debris.

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