A call for help for Haiti

Op-ed: We can't turn away from Haiti now; the worst may be yet to come.

When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, it caused massive destruction in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. An estimated 200,000 people perished, and 2.1 million people were displaced. It was a horrific disaster, and Haiti is still recovering from it with over 150,000 people still living in camps.

On Oct. 4, Haiti was hit by another devastating disaster. Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm, brought 145 mph winds and more than 24 inches of rain in 24 hours. Storm surges, flooding, mudslides and the powerful wind wreaked havoc throughout much of the southern and northern peninsulas of the country.

I just returned to Baltimore from Haiti, where I assisted Lutheran World Relief's (LWR) Haiti office in ramping up our response to this disaster. The damage is severe and widespread. Fishing villages along the coastlines were wiped away, and the corrugated roofs of simple dirt floor houses and schools were violently blown off. Trees were ripped up from their roots and thrown to the ground, even 100-year-old ceibas.

The official death is climbing every day as the Haitian Civil Protection Unit accesses isolated communities. An estimated 1.4 million people, 40 percent of whom are children, are in need of urgent, life-saving assistance.

Although the numbers of people affected by the hurricane may not appear as high as in the earthquake, the impact in rural areas is in many ways far worse. The landscape looks like a war zone dotted with demolished houses, schools, churches, trees and agricultural land. One of LWR's partners in Haiti referred to it as "apocalyptic."

Cases of cholera, which first appeared after the earthquake but had been on the decline in the past few years, are now increasing rapidly, fueled by the lack of access to clean water or medical care. Children in particular are vulnerable to this deadly disease. Access to shelter and food is also extremely limited, with most families remaining in what little, if anything, they have left of their homes and gardens. Hundreds of schools have been destroyed, too, leaving children with no access to education. Aid is coming — although its delivery has been hindered by damaged roads and the looting of convoys carrying supplies by people in dire need of help.

As critical as immediate aid is, the need could be even greater two to three months from now and beyond. Farmland and crops have all but been destroyed and, as reported by the Ministry of Agriculture, upward of 90 percent of livestock, mostly goats and poultry, were killed during the hurricane. People who already lived in abject poverty could face even starker conditions in the coming months with little to no food to eat, because their minimal stocks and seed sources were destroyed.

One Haitian non-profit that LWR works with said it could easily take up to five years for the rural sector to re-establish itself. In addition to the detrimental effect on rural populations, urban areas — including the densely populated and earthquake-affected Port-au-Prince — will have limited food sources, as the hard-hit southern peninsula is the breadbasket of Haiti.

Moreover, there is political instability due to further delays of the presidential elections there, which had been scheduled for Oct. 9 (after being postponed several times before that over the last year). With lower production, rising prices and political tensions mounting, the conditions could be ripe for internal strife, as well as what a Haiti-based United Nations official called a potential famine.

Yet the world quickly turned its attention away from the hurricane. Ongoing conflicts in other regions, including the recent invasion of Mosul, and the U.S. presidential campaign have dominated the news, leaving updates on the worsening situation in Haiti to trickle out when they can. With Haiti only 700 miles off the shores of the United States, it is very much our neighbor, and as such deserves much more attention from us.

There is a long, complicated history between the U.S. and Haiti, which should compel the United States to do all we can to support the people of Haiti in the aftermath of such a devastating disaster, which will have long-term impacts. The United Nations has requested $120 million in emergency contributions for Haiti aid from the international community, but has only received a dismal 13 percent in pledges. The U.S. has already committed $12 million to the recovery effort. But there is so much more to do.

We can't turn away from Haiti now — not when over a million people are in a life threatening situation, so many of whom are children. The worst may be yet to come.

Carolyn Barker-Villena directs programs in Latin America and the Caribbean for Lutheran World Relief, a Baltimore-based international humanitarian agency. She can be reached at cbarker@lwr.org.

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