Twenty bands were scheduled to perform on Monday in the heart of Champ de Mars on the second day of the three-day celebration of Kanaval. They were each provided with a float complete with large speakers, a backup generator, and a running engine. The government spent nearly $3 million on the celebrations that started on Sunday and lasted until Ash Wednesday.

Of the twenty bands, only thirteen made their way down the parade route on the second day. The other seven either experienced technical difficulties or suffered from a lack of organization on the committee’s part. In the course of two days, none of the floats managed to miss their performances because their trucks or backup generator were low on fuel.  Yet, a much-needed firetruck was too low on gas to save one of Haiti’s most iconic structures.

On the twilight of Monday night, while millions celebrated Kanaval in Champs de Mars, in the main square, enjoying nonstop drinking, laughter, music, and dancing under the watchful eyes of the Haitian National Police, approximately 1.3 miles away, the country’s historic iron market went up in flames.

Pictures and videos emerged on social media as the fire quickly spread. In the dark of the night, the flames engulfed the building, rapidly spreading through the warehouse damaging hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods. Authorities have yet to confirm what started the fire but witnesses say the blaze was caused by people burning trash not too far from the market.

When the local fire department was called to report to the incident, people were told that the fire truck was too low on gas to respond. As a result, the fire continued burning without any intervention from local authorities, scorching away goods and wages from merchants who worked at the market. When a neighboring fire department from Carrefour finally arrived on the scene, it was already too late to contain the flames. There hasn’t been any official assessment of the damages but some vendors report losing everything in the fire.

According to Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s national newspaper, Léones Paul who manages a storage unit at the market with his wife said he lost everything.

“Yesterday I bought sixty thousand gourdes worth of merchandises, I also paid off fifty thousand gourdes worth of debt. Now, there’s nothing left,” he said.  

The government remained closed that day because of the carnival celebrations while vendors took to the streets lamenting over everything they’ve lost. Haitian President Jovenel Moise accompanied by his wife visited the site of the incident and announced that a commission would be put in place to assist the victims: “A commission is formed at the moment by the Ministers of Social Affairs, the Status of Women, Tourism, Culture, and the Interior. This commission is in charge of collecting the list of all those who have lost goods, and to work on their rapid care. Before they find a credit, these traders must find a way to survive while waiting for the reconstruction of the market. The commission will analyze the files of the victims on a case-by-case basis.”

For a lot of the victims, the market represented their only source of income helping them provide for their families and their children’s education. They have now lost everything. The authorities have yet to provide a total cost estimate for the damages.

This recent fire wasn’t the market’s first brush with a disaster. The popular tourist attraction suffered a partial fire in 2008 and was later destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.  An $18 million renovation funded by Irish billionaire and Digicel’s owner Denis O’Brien revived the market from its old ruins in 2011 bringing it back to its former glory. President Florvil Hyppolite first inaugurated the Iron Market, or Mache Hyppolite, in 1891. The original structure was built in Paris as a railway station for Cairo, Egypt but was later shipped to Haiti after the deal between the two countries fell through.

After news of the fire broke, Haitians rallied on social media to help the victims. One artist even offered to pay school tuition for a woman’s children. Another individual put out a call for a massive fundraiser to assist more families with school tuition. While these actions are admirable and necessary at the moment, Haitians don’t need more charity. They need disaster preparedness, strong infrastructure, and emergency services to help prevent and respond to these tragic incidents when they occur.  

Haiti has seen its fair share of disasters in recent years that have not been responded to adequately by the government or given the proper attention.

While Carnival remains one of the few, if not the only cultural event that brings together Haitians from every socioeconomic background, the celebration has been a source of controversy and danger to a vulnerable portion of the population.  Hundreds of families woke up Tuesday having lost everything. On Tuesday night, the stands filled up with onlookers wearing matching t-shirts, carnival goers crowded the streets and by Wednesday morning, the last float had made its way through the parade route without running low on gas. In the end, everyone went home to sleep off a night of celebration because in Haiti, even when the rest of the country burns, the show must go on. This year’s theme: “Haiti Jan l Dwe ye a – Haiti the Way it Should be.”

Coralie Saint-Louis

Coralie is a digital media specialist and multimedia journalist with several years of experience in content management, publication, and distribution.

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