The rain fell a few nights ago for the first time. It started off slowly, around five in the morning or so and then came down hard enough to wake me up. The first thought I had were the thousands of people living in tent cities beneath ragged bed sheets. Even a light rain could wipe out their small shelter and this one was just a small preview of what will inevitably come.
My translator arrived at my hotel about an hour later soaked. “This is nothing, boss,” he said. “In Haiti, it rains dogs and donkeys.”
Looking at the toppled buildings, mile-long food lines, and families crouched beneath nothing more than cloth and sticks, it is hard to imagine that Mother Nature will compound the already widespread suffering in the months ahead.
The rainy season in Haiti usually begins in April or May and hurricane season quickly follows between July and November. This mid-February rainfall could be the first hint of an early season, which would be a very unwelcome twist to the recovery efforts underway here.
I traveled out to Petit Goave, a coastal area of roughly 80,000 people 68 km west of Port-au-Prince, where our water and sanitation expert, John Akudago, is working to build latrines and clean water systems. Some of the first latrines will be in Beatrice, where approximately 2,500 people have resettled in some six camps that scatter the hillsides above the sea.
His first step: making sure that women are involved in the construction, from when the first shovel hits the dirt to the final product. “Women are integral to the success of water and sanitation systems,” says Akudago. “In each community, I tell the men that the women have to be included for this to begin.”
And included they were. In the camp that we visited in Beatrice, women stood alongside the men, digging the trenches for men’s and women’s latrines and received hygiene messages, like hand washing, to share with their community.
I spoke with one woman living in the camp who had eight children, ages eight to 20 years old. It did not rain like it had in Port-au-Prince, but she worries about when the rain will come. “But only God knows when,” she said.
To collect water, she must travel about 30 minutes roundtrip to a spring and back, but it is not potable, so it must be treated. The community, she described, is so happy and thankful for the latrines, made possible by the work of Akudago with International Medical Corps.
Back near Port-au-Prince at a camp in Carrefour, where International Medical Corps is providing health care alongside the local organization Hope for Haiti, some families were rebuilding their makeshift tents that were wiped out by the early morning rain. One young couple was lining the perimeter of their tent with cement blocks with the hope that it will keep the runoff out when the next rain comes.
Another woman, who lives with her daughter and grandchildren in the camp, worried that the babies would fall sick during the rainy season because they will often be wet and cold. “We have no toiletries and it is also hard to stay clean,” she continued, picking up her smallest grandchild from the muddy ground.
Akudago also dreads the rainy season for the hundreds of thousands of homeless. “Sanitation is a big problem, especially in Port-au-Prince, and when it rains, the human waste will spread,” Akudago explains. “I fear that there will be an outbreak of disease when the rainy season starts.”
The rain is inevitable, but its first appearance in Port-au-Prince in mid-February could mean that it is coming early, giving very little time for the homeless to find relief before their next drubbing from Mother Nature.
But is it?
Only God knows.