On Tuesday, as Hurricane Irma menaced the French West Indies, the interior minister of Haiti sought to ease the growing concerns of his nation’s mayors by announcing that he had unblocked millions of dollars in government funds and put it at their disposal.
The allocation came in addition to bulldozers and other equipment dispatched to clear roads if needed, and containers of food that had been sent to the five regions most likely to feel the brunt of Irma.
But on Thursday, as the dangerous Category 5 storm approached Haiti and the country’s central government ordered police to forcefully evacuate people in coastal communities, mayors were struggling to provide those in shelters with food and water, and wondering how they would cope in the aftermath.
“We are totally vulnerable,” Port-de-Paix Mayor Josue Alusma told a local Port-au-Prince radio station. “We don’t have any equipment.”
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Christian Joseph, the mayor of Môle-Saint-Nicolas, a city on Haiti’s northwestern tip, amplified Alusma’s concerns.
“We’ve assumed our responsibilities but when we look at other countries that have infrastructure and we see what Irma did, and our vulnerability, there is tremendous worry,” he told the Miami Herald. “All we know is that if there is one thing we believe in, it is in God.”
Joseph said his city had five main shelters for its population of more than 34,000. He and his assistant mayors, along with disaster volunteers from the local Office of Civil Protection, had fanned out across the rural city, pleading with residents to evacuate fishing villages and other high-risk areas.
But the city had little to offer those who took him up on the offer. “For the shelters,” he said, “we don’t have anything.”
Joseph said he had appealed to Food for the Poor and Caritas, a Catholic charity, to provide food for the shelters. And he asked the government to send a team of engineers to help because the Ministry of Public Works didn't have enough equipment to help unblock roads if the storm cuts off routes.
Any amount of rainfall, Joseph said, meant “two to three minutes later, you see water entering the city. It’s almost certain we are going to be flooded,” he said.
To the west in Cap-Haitien, Mayor Yvrose Pierre also was trying to make do with few resources for the shelters, even though she’s the mayor of Haiti's second largest city located in an area prone to both flooding and landslides. One river in particular, located on the outskirts of Cap-Haitien in the city of Haut-du-Cap, worried her.
“We have certain areas that are vulnerable to flooding,” she said. “We are evacuating the people who live in the flood zones and putting them in the shelters. But when you put people in shelters, you have to give them food, water, milk for the babies.”
Like Joseph Pierre, she said, she had to use what she had in her own meager coffers.
“We’ve yet to receive anything,” she said of the disbursements from the central government.
Pierre also said she had not yet received any food supplies, or noticed any pre-positioned equipment in the region.
“We haven’t seen any equipment. Maybe they are en route,” she said.
Haitian Interior Minister Max Rudolph Saint-Albin said the money had been sent to the bank accounts of the various mayors. But the mayors of Port-de-Paix and Môle-Saint-Nicolas said they still hadn’t been able to use the new funds, part of a long bureaucratic process requiring a lot of paperwork.
“The bank that we have to go to is [45 miles] from us,” said Joseph, the mayor of Môle-Saint-Nicolas. “We don’t have the time. We don’t have anything. So we just mobilized the Office of Civil Protection to do what we need and afterward we'll do reimbursements.”
It was unclear just how many Haitians had made it into shelters before Irma's arrival. Saint-Albin, who joined Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant and Police Chief Michel-Ange Gedeon at a midday pres conference Thursday warned that Irma was "not a game. It's very serious, it's very dangerous, it's very threatening for Haiti."
Still, Lafontant called on the population to remain calm, and to help one another by opening their homes to those unable or unwilling to go to shelters. Sandra Honoré, the head of the soon-to-be-departing United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) also said that the mission stands ready to assist with the approximately 1,000 engineering and military peacekeepers who remain in country.
"MINUSTAH is not of the same level of course as it was in October when Hurricane Matthew struck, but we will support to the extent of our capacity," she said.