A Wall of Mud: Haitian City Digs Out From Hurricane Ike

By David SnyderEvna Alexis sits on a thin wooden bed frame, the ceiling fans above her still in the sweltering heat. Around her, other survivors of Hurricane Ike lean in, eager to share the story of how they came to live on the second story of a seminary, a sea of mud below.

We were afraid of the hurricane because we were here during [Hurricane] Jeanne,” Evna says. “We came here because this was the closest shelter.”

The shelter Evna speaks of is the bishop’s residence in Gonaives, Haiti. Until this year, the worst storm people here knew of was Hurricane Jeanne, which struck Haiti in 2004. The story of Ike that Evna and others tell is one of confusion, panic and fear-with nearly all of the city’s 350,000 residents scrambling for the highest ground they could find.

“At 3 p.m., the water was up to our knees, so we were evacuating the kids to the school,” Evna says. “But the water was rising, so then we came here to the bishop’s house. To cross the street, some men stretched a rope across and we pulled ourselves over.”

There, she and as many as 600 others remained as floodwaters inundated the city. For days, Evna and others lived with no food, collecting rainwater from the roof. They had only the clothes they wore, Evna says,tugging at her flowered shirt for emphasis. It seemed as bad as it could get.

But as the floodwaters receded, a new nightmare emerged. Gonaives is surrounded on three sides by towering hills, all of them completely deforested. Soon, the short-term crisis of water gave way to the long-term crisis of mud. Hundreds of tons of it had flowed into the city, clogging every thoroughfare and filling every home. Estimates are that more than 3.2 million cubic yards of mud now clog the city — so much, one estimate projects that it would take as many as 400 trucks, working seven days a week, one full year to clean up the mess.

For Catholic Relief Services, reaching Ike survivors with food and clean water has been the top priority thus far. In the weeks after the storm hit, CRS, working through partners Caritas Haiti and the Missionaries of Charity, distributed 1,500 family ration kits. Each kit contains staples such as rice, sugar and cooking oil and is designed to provide a family of five with enough food to last 15 days. Many kits were divided to reach even more beneficiaries, among them, Evna and the others who remain at the bishop’s house. And though the food was much needed, residents of Gonaives still face the daily challenge of cleaning out what’s left of their homes, a task complicated by extensive damage and stubborn pockets of standing water.

“The water is still too high for us to go back,” Evna says. “I went back to my house but the roof is broken down.”

CRS is still seeking ways to help. Right now, the immediate needs are the most pressing. But for Evna, each day is filled with anxiety, as she and the others at the bishop’s house find what they can in their own homes, and get help in the form of food or water from relatives and friends.

“One of us gets out and finds something somewhere — in a friend’s house, or [with] family. Then we are able to share,” Evna says. “But even when we do receive some food we don’t have anywhere to cook it.”

She and others cook on small open fires of charcoal, and spend their days shoveling mud from the remains of their former homes. It is a desperate time in Gonaives. And though Hurricane Jeanne destroyed much of the city, killing hundreds, many here fear that Hurricane Ike has left a scar on Haiti that will be longer still in healing.

“I was displaced for about one and half months after Jeanne,” Evna says. “But I will have to stay here longer this time. I don’t have money. I don’t have anything.”

David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries with CRS.

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