Parts of Haiti are under 16 feet of water this week. Over the past month the country has been inundated with heavy rains brought by four storms: Fay, Gustave, Hanna and Ike. Caribbean nations are often the first to bear the brunt of these powerful storms that form in the Atlantic.


Last December I photographed for ten days in Haiti. Most of the time was spent in the Northern port city of Gonaives, where these photos were taken. Today Gonaives is the scene of some of the most widespread devastation wrought by recent storms in this developing nation that sits just a stone’s throw away from the Florida coast.


Gonaives occupies a low plain between the bay to the west and the mountains to the north and east. Haiti is known for its extensive deforestation, and the mountains around this city are representatives of this trend. When rains come, the surrounding hills become quickly saturated, soon flooding the town below. A witness in Gonaives during the recent tropical storm Hanna described this scenario as a “river of mud” flowing off the hills and into the town.


Above, this is what Gonaives looks like on a good day: trash piled up around pools of standing water. Even when rains have long since passed, flooding is a problem in this city. Most of Gonaives has no organized trash collection, nor any structured drainage system. The water crested this week at 16 feet and has now gone down to about chest level.

This is a busy city of 300,000 to 500,000 depending on how much of the surrounding area one takes into account. If you can look past the garbage and sewage in the street, it has a bit of an old world charm. Most of the activity centers around the lively port and market which are in close proximity to one another.


Back in December I discovered that the Haitian government had commissioned a French private contractor to build drainage canals throughout the city in order to channel water from the hills outside town to the bay. These canals were begun, but very early in the process the funding disappeared and the project was never completed.


In addition to a terrible eye sore, these canals became a dumping ground for the city’s waste and a breeding pool for disease carrying mosquitoes. Now that these cesspools throughout the city have flooded, the humanitarian catastrophe will surely be compounded. For more on these canals see my post from last December.


It’s difficult to asses the full scale of the disaster in Haiti as flood waters have yet to fully recede and some areas still remain inaccessible. Higher estimates put the death toll in the 700s. Gonaives remains largely deserted as people continue to stay in shelters outside town. Those that remained were forced to stay on the rooftops of their houses in order to fend off looters.


Though the recent storms in Haiti have proved disastrous, the destruction they leave behind is still not on the scale of the worst hurricane in recent memory: Hurricane Jeanne. In 2004 Jeanne pounded Haiti’s northern mountains with rain before it came sweeping into Gonaives killing 2800 of the city’s residents.


After all this it is clear that Gonaives’ finest asset is its people. They are patient, tenacious, and most of all, resilient. In this the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, most have no choice but to return to town and attempt to rebuild lives with whatever the storms capriciously left intact.


Rusty ghost ships linger in the city’s harbor, left over from the days of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude, who ruled the country from 1957 to 1986. Despite it being common knowledge that these presidents looted tens of millions of dollars from Haiti’s coffers, there is a longing for the return of the old leadership. The New York Times recently reported growing frustration by Haiti’s poorest who have seen security lapse, food grow scarce and garbage pile up in their streets. Life was more stable under the rule of harsh dictators. Reforms introduced by current president Rene Préval have been slow to take effect.


The national government has such little power here, it cannot coordinate disaster preparedness or response in such emergency situations as were experienced in the past month. It is forced to rely on humanitarian efforts of the UN and other NGOs for relief efforts. Such is life in a fledgling democracy that seems to take more orders from the wind and the rain than from the people themselves.


CARE is contributing to the relief effort in Gonaives.
Words & Images Copyright 2008 Jake Lyell Photography