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When disasters hit rich, poor nations

Images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are almost identical to those from Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne struck one year ago. The lives of many of the victims in Gonaïves are still in ruins, says Pedro Medrano, WFP's Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in an article which first appeared in the Miami Herald.

Images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are almost identical to those from Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne struck one year ago. The lives of many of the victims in Gonaïves are still in ruins, says Pedro Medrano, WFP's Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in an article which first appeared in the Miami Herald.

Images from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are almost identical to those from Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne struck one year ago. The lives of many of the victims in Gonaïves are still in ruins, says Pedro Medrano, WFP's Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, in an article which first appeared in the Miami Herald.

Rooftops half submerged in swirling brown water, survivors clinging to flotsam or wading through flooded streets; the blank, uncomprehending faces of people whose lives have suddenly been overturned: these are the images flowing from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In the age of space flight and the microchip, man is still powerless against the forces of nature.

Almost exactly one year ago, we were seeing almost identical images from Gonaïves in Haiti, lashed by Tropical Storm Jeanne on the night of Sept. 18.

The same devastation, the same stricken faces, the same fear and lawlessness. It was not on the scale of Katrina, but for the victims, the horror was no different. The main distinction appears to be that last year's disaster struck one of the poorest countries in the world, while this year's - only a few hundred miles away - has hit the richest and most powerful.

American generosity

As the rescue efforts in Louisiana gather pace, offers of assistance have come from all around the world. Americans have shown particular generosity to their fellow citizens, opening not just their wallets, but also their doors to the displaced.

It is reassuring evidence that when people are in need, the world is willing to respond, defying the conventional platitudes about 'compassion fatigue'.

In Haiti, it is not just a question of strengthening levees. The island is hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with natural disasters

Pedro Medrano, WFP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean

We saw it with the Indian Ocean tsunami nine months ago; in the past month we have witnessed it in response to the harrowing television pictures from Niger.

When people are confronted with images of suffering, when these images penetrate the comfort and security of their warm, dry homes, their overwhelming tendency is to ask themselves: "How can I help?" The problem arises when the media spotlight moves on.

The Katrina rescue operation in the United States is reported to be costing about US$2 billion a day. It is fair to assume that the United States will pull out all the stops to get people back to their homes and on their feet again. And funding of the rescue, rehabilitation and rebuilding effort is not likely to be a problem.

Living in a tiny shelter

But for many of the victims of Gonaïves, whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed last year, life is still in ruins. Thousands are still living in shacks they patched together from the rubble. Funds to rehouse them are simply not there.

Consider 42-year-old Marie Jean Sylverin, who lost her house when Jeanne struck last year and has since been living in a tiny shelter that she built herself from the wreckage, sharing a bed with her four daughters.

What will happen to Marie Jean when the next hurricane strikes Haiti, as it inevitably will? In Haiti, it is not just a question of strengthening levees. The island is hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with natural disasters.

This is part of the legacy of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere - and one hit hard by environmental degradation. More than 98 percent of the country has been deforested, leaving it highly vulnerable to floods and mudslides. Even small storms or heavy rain can cause catastrophe and bring serious economic consequences.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) is currently assisting some 850,000 people in Haiti, with food distributions to malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers and people living with HIV/AIDS. It also provides food to primary schoolchildren under its school feeding program.

Coffers are empty

Fifteen percent of the funds WFP receives for Haiti are set aside to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. Unfortunately, it currently faces a funding shortfall of more than 75 percent: Only US$10 million has, so far, been received against US$40 million needed over the next two years. The coffers are empty.

For Marie Jean and her daughters, that means eking out an existence in their little shack until it gets washed away by the next big storm. They don't have any choice in the matter. But if they did, they might well prefer to be in New Orleans.

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