Why Haiti wasn’t ready for a hurricane: A Q&A with Jonathan Katz

Jonathan Katz

One of the very few foreign correspondents based in Haiti when the 2010 earthquake struck, Katz is the award-winning author of “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew slammed into southern Haiti, the scale of the damage is still becoming horrifyingly apparent. According to the UN, some 1.4 million people are in urgent need of aid and that number is expected to rise, as is the death toll, which now stands at 546. Six years on from the devastating earthquake of 2010 and the billions of dollars in aid that came in its wake, why wasn’t the disaster-prone nation more prepared? IRIN turned to former Haiti correspondent and expert Jonathan Katz for some answers:

Where would you lay most of the blame for the weak preparations for Hurricane Matthew in Haiti: the government, the NGOs, or both?

It’s hard to separate the two, and the problems go a lot deeper than either. Haiti has no real government right now, both in the sense of incredibly weak institutions at the local level, and the fact that there is literally no elected national government, with elections for both the presidency and parliament delayed by more than a year. But a lot of that comes down to the foreign NGOs and the foreign governments and private citizens who sponsor them. The NGOs came into Haiti decades ago expressly with the purpose of supplanting and weakening the government of then dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The explicit goal may have faded away, but it is still the effect.

And that’s not even counting all the ways the international community has been immersed in Haitian politics over the years, whether it was the US government providing the plane that ferried President Jean-Bertrand Aristide away from a 2004 coup carried out by US-trained paramilitaries, or Hillary Clinton flying down to personally overturn the results of the 2010-11 election, leading to the ascent of a foreign business-friendly leader (Michel Martelly) who mismanaged the country for five years until he was forced to step down amid protests and a broken election earlier this year.

Until money and other resources come into Haiti in a way that builds up local institutions, including the government, and gives Haitians control over their own lives, no number of emergency aid deliveries or one-off development projects are going to leave Haitians in a position to weather future disasters of any kind.

Why weren’t the worst-hit areas of the Tiburon Peninsula better warned/prepared for Hurricane Matthew? Why weren’t more evacuations and stockpiling done?

Who was going to do the warnings? Where were people going to go? What was going to get stockpiled, where, and how? In wealthier countries we take for granted that there are first responders and emergency officials, funded by taxes and always at the ready, who will come by and help us get through a disaster. In Haiti there’s a little of that, but not much. Matthew hit a part of the country that’s remote and hard to reach from the capital, Port-au-Prince. The World Food Programme and some other organisations stockpiled food, but it was anyone’s guess which part of the country was going to get hit hardest and where exactly it needed to go in advance. The far southwest is a largely rural area where people are used to fending for themselves. They could leave a flimsy house for a stronger one or find a concrete building and hope for the best, but what was going to keep the storm from ripping up their gardens and destroying the food supply they were counting on for the rest of the year? Those conditions were already incredibly precarious; the storm was just the final straw. A better question might be: Why were people living that way in the first place?

How does distrust of MINUSTAH (the UN’s peacekeeping force in Haiti), and more widely of aid workers created by the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, affect the response now?

I’m sure it’s going to make it harder for some foreign aid workers to do their work. They have the UN to thank for that. After introducing cholera into Haiti for the first time ever documented in October 2010, the whole United Nations command, up to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, dissembled, covered up, and dodged accountability wherever they could. They’ve had exactly six years to do something about that and they haven’t; and, for a lot of people, even now, that trust will never be repaired. Personally, I’d be more concerned about whether the UN system and other foreign responders have learned lessons from that disaster, as well as the failed response to the 2010 earthquake, about the need for accountability and the importance of ensuring that they first do no harm. Haiti can’t afford another crisis like that now.

Are international NGOs and UN agencies doing enough to partner with local NGOs and authorities?

From what I’ve heard, Haitian officials and the transitional government have been trying to assert more control over the response than the government of then-President René Préval could in 2010 – though that’s a pretty low bar to clear. But knowing everything we know about the humanitarian aid system and who really holds political and economic power in our world, it’s hard to imagine people living in the disaster zones really being able to take the dominant role. That said, this conversation has been going on for a while, and even the biggest and least accountable INGOs know that they at least have to gesture toward local partnerships and cooperative models. So I’d expect to hear more about that than we have in disasters past. But given that accountability still remains such a pipe dream in Haiti that Ban Ki-moon didn’t even feel compelled to admit his organisation’s well-known responsibility for the cholera outbreak, which has already killed at least 10,000 people in six years and is getting worse again after the storm, let’s say I’m sceptical that anything real will change. But you never know.

What needs to change the most so that Haitians are better prepared and assisted when such storms come?

Haitians need more money, power, and control over their own lives. There have to be long-term partnerships aimed at building Haitian institutions that are accountable to Haitian people. That includes building infrastructure that Haitians manage according to their own needs and specifications, whether in terms of water and sanitation, food security, governance, or direct disaster preparedness. That work has to start right now and ramp up quickly to serious levels so that it is in place, tested, and ready when the next disaster hits. Given its place in the Caribbean, with the effects of climate change mounting, and along that pesky system of faults, the next test might not be that long from now.

(TOP PHOTO: Savener, a 41-year-old vendor, stands in front of the area where he worked and lived before hurricane Matthew. Bahare Khodabande/IRIN)