Worst Fears Realized

Ariella Cohen remembers a reporting trip to Haiti, during which an international aid consultant expressed her fears of an earthquake. Plus, a republished feature article from Issue 21 about the hurricane-ravaged cities of New Orleans and Gonaives, which Cohen wrote after her visit.

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A little over a year ago, Catherine Hermantin and I were drinking green tea in her living room on a Port-au-Prince hilltop. I was there to talk to the Haitian international aid consultant about a series of devastating hurricanes that struck Haiti in August of 2008. The storms had narrowly missed my hometown of New Orleans and I was interested in understanding what the two environmentally vulnerable places could learn from each other. At one point during our conversation, Catherine interrupted my question about hurricane-proof planning: “It’s earthquakes I fear most,” she said.

Catherine’s father, a prominent Haitian modernist architect, had built their house in the 1950s. The house, she explained, used to be the only one on the wooded peak. By last year, it was one of hundreds there: an airy villa at the center of a shantytown of small concrete and tin homes. All of it stood against a backdrop of balding mountains that every year shrank a little more, thanks to the miners who earned a living cutting limestone from the peak’s interior.

A tremor could send the whole region tumbling, Catherine told me that day.

Reading news of Tuesday’s earthquake, it’s impossible not to imagine the worst.

Below, Next American City has republished the article that came out of my time with Catherine and others working to build a more sustainable Haiti. My thoughts are with all those in Haiti.

Between a Rock and a Wet Place: Haiti and Louisiana’s Shared History and Dangerous Future

By Ariella Cohen. Photos by Andy Levin.

On a humid afternoon in October, a five-piece jazz band marches down a mud-caked street, wafting sonorous funeral hymns above piles of trash and the broken roofs of flooded houses. The scene is totally New Orleans — except this is Haiti.

Four back-to-back storms — Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hannah and Ike — pounded Haiti last August. Their combined force devastated the city of Gonaives as badly as Hurricane Katrina did New Orleans. Foul silt now blankets streets, houses and the skin of people trying to remove it with shovels and wheelbarrows. The jazz funeral procession is winding around one of few sections of the city that, one month after the storms, is not covered in thick, almost impassable mud.

According to the Haitian government, the August hurricanes took the lives of at least 793 citizens. The official death toll does not include those who died in the storm’s muddy aftermath. The man being mourned by rhythmic horn music died three weeks after Hurricane Hannah’s winds ripped the tin roof from his house and filled its cinderblock walls with surges of mud. Roger Saint Cloure left behind neighbors who are living on dented tin rooftops, baskets stuffed with their belongings visible from the street. One nephew is staying on the concrete floor of a flood-damaged school.

“The pressure from the storms killed him,” says Lovius Simon, a friend walking in the traditional cemetery procession. Simon had just shined his black dress shoes, and already the soles were lathered in the city’s omnipresent black muck.

According to the World Health Organization, Fay, Gustav, Hannah and Ike directly impacted 80 percent of Gonaives’s population of 350,000. In October, the city’s only operational hospital was a converted truck depot run by the international humanitarian and medical aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières. One week after opening, the makeshift hospital had served 160 patients. Most suffered from intestinal, vaginal or pulmonary maladies linked directly to the standing, contaminated water they had been trekking through, bathing in and, in all too many cases, consuming. “People are living with still water, and there is no system of pipes to take away the waste,” says Dr. Federico Martoglio. “People are hungry. They find a vegetable in the water, wash it off and eat it.” The post-diluvial city smells like post-Katrina New Orleans, with added notes of human waste and burning trash.

Shared Roots

Parallels between Haiti and New Orleans stretch back 300 years. They share histories as French colonies under Napoleon, and later, as hubs of pan-African culture. Haiti’s 1791 slave rebellion freed its black population and eventually led to the collapse of Napoleon’s empire, made New Orleans possible.

The 2008 hurricane season made it startlingly clear that the two coastal locales also share shaky futures. “Both are building on land that was never meant to be built on,” says University of Texas political scientist Simon Fass, author of Political Economy in Haiti: The Drama of Survival. Growing urban populations have pushed development deep into low-lying areas that previously served as buffers against rising water and tropical winds. In both places, a hurricane in the wrong place could kill tens of thousands.

Dire poverty is the root of the problem for both Haiti and New Orleans. A 2003 U.S. Census survey ranked New Orleans as the country’s 17th poorest city, with 20 percent of its population below the poverty line. A 2007 tally showed that while the city’s total population had dropped by one-third since Katrina, from 454,000 to an estimated 308,000, the percentage of people living in substandard conditions remained roughly the same. The numbers compare grimly with Haiti, where more than 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 54 percent lives in abject poverty, according to the United Nations. Numbers don’t convey the grinding conditions: people sleeping in hot, dirt-floored homes, struggling every day for food and clean water. The nation boasts the dubious distinction of being both the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and its fastest growing population outside of Africa. While international organizations such as the World Bank and the UN have worked with Haitian officials to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to development projects and environmental conservation, the need to feed people has eclipsed longer-term planning efforts.

Rainy Days Ahead

“These are two individual communities that have to raise revenue,” says Traci Burch, a University of New Orleans doctoral candidate in urban studies. “The way you do that is through growing the tax base and economy with new development, even if you can’t pay to build levees to protect them.”

The anarchic path of current development, however, has only intensified their vulnerability. Haitians have ravaged the forests that protect them from storms to produce charcoal, which they use as cooking fuel. In Louisiana, communities sacrificed wetlands for oil pipelines and trade canals. Louisiana’s marshes are eroding at the rate of one acre per half-hour; an area the size of Manhattan sinks into the Gulf of Mexico each year. Without intervention, the gulf will move another 30 miles inland by 2050, leaving roughly one million people who live in New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs even more exposed to storm surge.

Officials are encouraging residents to return to devastated neighborhoods that were vacated after Katrina, but not all have been earmarked for improved levee protection, including eastern New Orleans and parts of fast-growing Jefferson Parish, the Crescent City’s closest suburb. During heavy rains, the parking lot of a Bed Bath & Beyond on the parish’s west bank fills with water that can reach the knees of an unlucky shopper. Last spring, a developer interested in redeveloping a storm-ravaged eastern New Orleans amusement park, formerly a Six Flags, said that building there would require him to build his own floodwalls because the site did not have adequate federal protection

“The site is on the marsh,” said Danny Rogers, CEO of Southern Star Amusement. “Without more protection, it could be devastated again if another hurricane hit.”

The recent storms demonstrate what is at stake with these improvements. Louisiana officials estimate hurricanes Gustav and Ike inflicted about $3 billion in uninsured housing losses, putting about 3,000 households at risk. For many of the impacted households, it was the second hit in three years. “To be back here at square one, flooded out with nothing [again] after doing what I was supposed to do,” says Wilton Coulon, 51, of western Jefferson Parish. “The stress is giving me problems with my heart, giving me chest pains.”

Mortgage brokers have broken the risk into a neat formula that says homes in the region have a 26 percent chance of being flooded again over a 30-year mortgage. Surviving these storms unscathed, however, is no predictor of future safety. “We have very short memories,” says Burch. “It is very easy for people to think they are safe because they didn’t get hit in Katrina. In reality, [the suburbs] are no safer than [New Orleans] yet they lack the protective infrastructure of a coordinated levee system.”

Scaling Mountainsides

While Louisiana government has fallen short in efforts to ensure safer conditions for development, Haiti has almost no oversight at all. In the capital city of Port-au-Prince, labyrinthine shantytowns of concrete climb the sides of mountains. The squat gray dwellings have replaced dense forest that in 1923 covered 60 percent of the country — and by 2001 covered only 1 percent of the land, according to then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The balding mountains — the legacy of generations of dependence on charcoal — are a symptom of the rampant poverty and explosive population growth that defines day-to-day life in Haiti.

The daughter of a prominent Haitian architect, Catherine Hermantin, lives on top of one of these steep inclines in a palatial modernist home her father designed. The property has been in the family for 60 years. For most of that time, no one else lived on the pristine wooded hilltop. About 15 years ago, a trickle of people began to build small concrete homes just outside her family’s front gate. To Hermantin’s chagrin, the new neighbors began cutting down almond and mango trees for charcoal or firewood. She estimates that 300 houses have been built. The battle over the trees rages on.

“They come in with machetes and try to cut down my trees because they need the wood for fuel,” laments Hermantin, a former Haiti project coordinator for Food for the Poor, an international relief organization. Even more than a hurricane, Hermantin fears an earthquake. The fast-eroding mountain immediately south of her house is one of the city’s most active limestone quarries. The stone interior of the peak has been almost completely mined, its material made into concrete for homes like those creeping up around her. She fears an earthquake would send the mountain tumbling into her house.

One consequence of Haiti’s unfettered growth is compromised policing ability.

“It is difficult to patrol,” said Clerveaux Petit-Frere Ervey, a Haiitian National Police chief of post for Gonaives “There is so much ground and not a lot of roads. The mud makes it hard to get to some places.”

In New Orleans too, the city’s spread-out population has created new challenges for police. Burglary is on the rise as criminals find opportunities in mostly empty neighborhoods to steal copper and lumber from partially built houses. The loss of population and density has not borne the decrease in violence many anticipated. In October, the magazine Foreign Policy crunched homicide rates in major cities and deemed New Orleans one of the world’s top five murder capitals. With the New Orleans Police Department reporting 67 murders per 100,000 residents, even a shrunken Big Easy saw proportionately more killings in 2007 than Cape Town, South Africa, where police reported 62 murders per 100,000 residents. It is the only North American city on the list.

Nowhere To Go

Simon Fass began talking about this ruinous scenario way back in 1974 while developing a plan with the U.N. for sustainable development in Haiti. Fass’s team spent years composing a master plan to guide the development of swelling cities. They realized that without some direction, urban populations would continue to expand into fragile ecosystems, causing them to erode further and become even more fragile and risky for habitation. “We were not the first to try either,” says Fass. “The same thing was said by the first U.N. mission to Haiti in 1949. Even when the population was less than 100,000, the issues of planning and flooding were clear.” Even by the time of Fass’s proposal, however, sustainability had not yet come into vogue, and the plan ended up collecting dust in the annals of Haitian bureaucracy.

Following Hurricane Ike, the World Bank approved a $25 million grant for Haiti to support recovery and rebuilding efforts. The money was supposed to help the country strengthen its capacity to manage natural disasters. But while the country’s officials agree with the international community that sustainable rebuilding is a priority, the government of Haiti faces challenges not found in wealthier countries.
“There are no land registries,” said Fass. “You take land at your own peril, even if it is for good reason like building levee or reforestation.”

Without some kind of intervention, Fass is pessimistic about the future: “Haitians are hemmed in by the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. If not the marsh or the mountains, where else are they going to go?” Louisiana finds in a similar bind. Grassroots communities of both places, however, have begun to carve out a solution.

When Catherine Hermantin talks about Port-au-Prince, she sounds like a New Orleanian. She loves her city but is unsure if future generations will be able to live there. She has ideas for improvements but no faith in the government to carry them out. She is sick of plans with high start-up costs that stop in their tracks after planners have been paid. Yet she is staying and trying. The Florida State-educated relief organizer now works on sustainable agriculture projects in the countryside and reforestation projects in the city.

“I have not seen the government do anything that works,” Hermantin says. “But there are beautiful things about this culture and land, and I am not ready to give up.” Her words resound with Pam Dashiell, director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. Dashiell is a fierce advocate for a smarter, higher and healthier rebuilding of the neighborhood where the levees broke. She works with other non-profit groups to lobby federal and local officials for the cash needed to restore the Lower Ninth Ward’s surrounding wetlands. A longtime resident of Katrina’s ground zero, she is unwilling to leave the culturally rich area Fats Domino calls home, but she acknowledges that government must step up if the low-lying parts of the neighborhood are to safely repopulate. “What can be done by people in the community is being done,” she says. “What is lacking is government. Government is failing to perform its function.”

“The community has a plan,” she says. “But we can’t implement our plan until the government fixes the levees, the streets, the sewers.” It’s a sound bite Haiti can use.

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Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.

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Tags: governancenew orleanshurricane katrina

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