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Aid Workers On The Front Line In Haiti Find Washed-Out Roads, And Some Signs Of Hope

A soldier walks over earthquake rubble on Tuesday, the morning after Tropical Storm Grace swept over Les Cayes, Haiti, three days after the 7.2 magnitude quake.
A soldier walks over earthquake rubble on Tuesday, the morning after Tropical Storm Grace swept over Les Cayes, Haiti, three days after the 7.2 magnitude quake.

Aid agencies' effort to bring relief to Haitians hit by a strong earthquake is being complicated not just by the damage it wrought, but by flooding and washed-out roads from Tropical Storm Grace.

"People have been asking for tarps a lot, blankets, construction materials to rebuild their home" after the quake, Christy Delafield, managing director of communications for Mercy Corps, told NPR from Haiti Wednesday.

But the effort to get those materials where they're needed was made nearly impossible when the storm system soaked the area, triggering mudslides and rockslides. Citing the U.S. Geological Survey, Delafield says there have been at least 150 mudslides and rockslides near L'Asile, an area in central Haiti that was hard-hit by Saturday's quake and then drenched by Grace.

"It's made it very difficult to get to people," Delafield said. "There are places where we were driving through a foot of water to try to kind of cross a place that they're like, 'Yeah, this is a bridge.' And I'm like, 'This looks like a river.' "

School becomes a shelter, and classes are slated to start soon

Making matters worse, many public buildings that might normally offer shelter during a storm, such as schools and churches, were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake.

"There's nothing more eerie than walking into a half-destroyed building and seeing yesterday's lesson on the blackboard as if nothing had changed," Delafield said.

A girl plays inside a classroom on Wednesday where her family is staying at a school turned into a shelter for those displaced by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti.
Fernando Llano / AP
A girl plays inside a classroom on Wednesday where her family is staying at a school turned into a shelter for those displaced by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti.

Some school buildings, she said, "looked like somebody stepped on the roof and it just folded in on itself and collapsed into the floor ... the kind of thing that just seems unimaginable."

In one school that remained largely intact, all the desks were moved out. As many as 200 people, desperate to find shelter, packed in to the floor space.

"People are sleeping on the floor of the classrooms," Delafield said. "They're sleeping side by side and like head to toe."

Classes were scheduled to start on Sept. 6, she said.

More than 30,000 people live in the area of L'Asile. According to Delafield, 90% of their homes were affected by the earthquake and about 50% of their homes were destroyed completely.

She describes the scene: "One house has some damage, the next couple of houses are destroyed. It's just really devastating to look at, and there are just many, many people who do not have a place to stay, do not have a roof over their head."

There are welcoming signs of hope

In the face of widespread damage, there are signs that small-scale commerce is still functioning, Delafield said. She described seeing roadside shops that have been able to reopen, and seeing vehicles passing by, loaded with supplies such as crates of water and tarps.

Also back at work, she said, are the women known as madan saras — small-scale roving entrepreneurs who sell plantain chips and other food and basic items.

Mercy Corps' relief effort ranges from giving some 5,000 families cash assistance to distributing 3,000 kits containing essential supplies such as water purification tablets, soap, diapers, and tarps. It will also provide thousands of solar lanterns. But the group also makes it a priority to try to circulate relief money through the Haitian economy, rather than rely on overseas suppliers.

"We would rather purchase locally," Delafield said.

She said she spoke to a woman "who said, 'I don't have anything. I don't even have Cotex.' You know, she's talking about like having lost everything, including basic feminine hygiene supplies. So when folks are in that situation, it really it's not possible to immediately find a routine or normalcy."

A man carries two of about 20 boxes of food aid from the city government to cook on site for residents displaced by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake staying in improvised tents next to a school in Les Cayes, Haiti, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Fernando Llano / AP
A man carries two of about 20 boxes of food aid from the city government to cook on site for residents displaced by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake staying in improvised tents next to a school in Les Cayes, Haiti, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.

But there are signs, she added, that Haitians are rallying around one another to help cope with the disaster. Donations have come in from Port-Au-Prince, where people were affected less severely. Families have reached out to help relatives. Communities have offered support, even if that means people helping others to dig debris out of their homes, or to look for survivors under the rubble.

"There's a very strong and vital sense of neighbors helping each other, and community members helping each other," Delafield said. "That's activity that I see as very, very vibrant."

Haiti was already struggling, due to intense storms and deforestation

Climate change has brought an intense cycle of challenging weather to the Caribbean, where dry seasons and droughts are often followed by powerful hurricanes and other storms — conditions that have been worsening deforestation and causing erosion.

"As a result, communities that rely on rain-fed agriculture are not getting enough to eat," Delafield said. So, even before the latest disaster, she added, relief workers were seeing "high levels of hunger, high levels of poverty."

Haiti was also enduring political upheaval, and the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Then came the earthquake, and the latest tropical system.

When Delafield spoke to NPR by phone Wednesday, an aftershock had just forced her and others to run out of a building.

"There's no way to predict it," she said of the aftershocks. "It's just like a thing that causes a lot of anxiety among people because it is so unpredictable and sporadic. It just feels like a kind of cruel mental health element of this type of disaster."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.