Amid Heavy Rain, Haitians Face Cholera And Lack Of Shelters

In Haiti, severe storms and mudslides have killed over 20 people, thus tempering enthusiasm of a newly-installed president. There is fear that the start of the hurricane season will increase cholera, a waterborne disease. Host Michel Martin speaks with with The Miami-Herald Tribune's Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles about the situation in Haiti and how humanitarian groups and the country's government are responding.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Father's Day is coming up and we just thought we'd offer up a gentle reminder to get the big guy a card, a tie, take him to a ball game because of everything he did for you. And we have a little Father's Day gift for the dads, a series of reflections from some contributors and friends of the program. That's coming up.

But, first, to Haiti, where the enthusiasm of a newly installed president there, Michel Martelly, was tempered by heavy storms and mudslides last week with more than 20 confirmed deaths and many more injured. Haiti, of course, is still recovering from last year's massive earthquake with hundreds of thousands of people living in makeshift shelters.

Last year, thankfully earthquake survivors dodged a severe hurricane season. But between the loss of homes and vital infrastructure and the ongoing problem of cholera in Haiti's shelters, this storm season seems to be a looming disaster.

Jacqueline Charles is the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. She's been covering Haiti since 1994. She's been with us from time to time to tell us about things going on there. She's with us once again. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

JACQUELINE CHARLES (Miami Herald): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, meteorologists are predicting at least 18 tropical storms this summer, all of them with the potential of becoming hurricanes. Is that typical?

CHARLES: You know, I don't know what's typical anymore. Because, remember, in 2008, Haiti got hit by four storms back to back within 30 days and that was amazing and we saw a lot of disaster. And this is something that started in 2004 when the country - the city of Gonaives was underwater and 3,000 people died as a result.

So I think that today it has just become expected that we are going to have these hurricane seasons. And I think last year, as you mentioned, the country dodged a bullet in terms of hurricane season.

MARTIN: Now, you had some bracing words for us earlier when we called you to check in and you said that it's not a question of if people will die, it's a question of how many will die. Why do you say that?

CHARLES: I know, it's very sad, but it is the reality, unfortunately, with the country today, even before the earthquake. You have a country where the mountains are barren. You know, people look at the rivers and they think, oh, OK, you know, this river isn't going to fill up. But I can tell you, I was there in 2008 and I just recall hearing the stories from people running out in the middle of the night while the rains were coming and literally there was no shelter. There was nowhere to go.

So when you look at the infrastructure in Haiti, when you look at the environmental degradation that has taken place over the years, you just know even with a typical rainstorm - and this is what we saw last week. Yes, it was seven days into the hurricane season, but it was not a hurricane. It wasn't even a tropical storm. And you had 28 people who died. And people are still searching for their loved ones.

So, just in terms of the conditions in the country, just even when you set the earthquake aside and that damage, it's just a looming disaster.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us a little bit about what steps the government is taking to at least try to address this problem and also whatever else the humanitarian NGOs are doing to assist them?

CHARLES: Yeah. One of the sad realities today is that there just aren't enough shelters, you know, for the people that you need. While you can isolate that in certain cities like Gonaives, for instance, where they've done a lot of work on schools because that city is below sea level. And you can probably evacuate people. When you look at Port-au-Prince, you're really dealing with a situation of how do we get people to leave where they're at and get to safety?

And so one of the things the government has been doing since last year is text messaging and they have been sending text messages to people very early. Sometimes a week before, telling them that the country's on an orange alert, which means, you know, get your house in order, get your papers together and try to see if you can get to higher ground or you can get somewhere.

At the same time, what's going on right now with the government and the international community, they are identifying buildings that can serve as shelters. So, if need be, you can put people in those buildings. I mean, last year we had a situation where buildings were identified, but were they really hurricane safe? Not really.

And so what they're trying to do is to do this assessment throughout. One of the looking disasters this year is not even just in terms of the tents, but we have a number of people, I mean, hundreds of thousands of people have left the tents. The question is, where have they gone? And the sad reality is a number of those people have gone into homes that were damaged during the earthquake. They should be demolished. They are not safe.

And so just with a little bit of rain, you can see another disaster where those houses just come crumbling down. And that is something that all of the authorities are very much aware of and saying that this year, if the country is in danger of getting hit by a storm, it's not just about evacuating tent cities, but you also have to identify neighborhoods and what can you do move those people out?

MARTIN: And, finally, Jacqueline, I understand this is a very tough, bracing report this morning, but could you just tell us a little bit about the cholera outbreak that we heard so much about, you know, earlier. Are authorities getting their hands around that?

CHARLES: The reality is cholera never went away. I mean, I can tell you, I mean, even myself, you know, in the last couple of weeks cholera sort of takes a, you know, a backseat in your mind because there's so much going on. You know, the country is still on autopilot. There isn't a government with this new president yet. And so we knew with the rains, cholera was going to come back.

But I think what's happening, it has come back with such a vengeance because the numbers are just surging in terms of the number of people that are getting cholera. And where it's happening - it's happening in the rural areas, in communities where it takes two, three, four hours to get to the nearest clinic or hospital. And cholera can kill you in two or three hours.

MARTIN: I see.

CHARLES: And so that's what they're looking at.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Charles, a Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. We were able to reach her at WLRN in Miami. Jacqueline, please keep us informed. Thank you for joining us.

CHARLES: Thanks for having me.

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