By J.O. Haselhoef, Travel Contributor
The 2020 weather forecast calls for the Caribbean to be more active than usual with named storms and hurricanes. It reminds my partner, Mike Goodman, and me of the hurricanes in 2008. We well remember the people of Lamontay, the area southwest of Jacmel, and their experience when four hurricanes hit within days.
Willy, the 8-year old, huddled through the third of four hurricanes with his parents and 10 brothers and sisters in their small house just off the main road atop the mountain. The two storms that passed the week before ripped the tin roof off their outhouse and downed several of their trees. The winds guillotined the top of the coconut palm and scattered the fronds that lay in parallel strips on the roof of the cooking lean-to. The rainy season always brought storms, but this downpour was remarkable.
I imagine it tried Willy’s parents’ patience as it forced them to sit and wait, knowing what would come was not good. They were in the midst of harvest season: anything growing had uprooted. Worse, the cloth sacks of seed, stored in the corner for next season’s planting, sat wet — ruined. Willy found their rooster dead and plucked it for cooking. They ate well that night, but the meal was more than they could afford.
Those four hurricanes killed 800 people throughout Haiti. The river we remembered crossing on the way to Lamontay flooded its banks and the main road washed out. It cut off Lamontay, Musak and other rural regions from Jacmel. When the storms subsided, members of the community set out to fix the roads.
Voltaire, one of our connections to the area, made his way to Jacmel, phoned his friends at the two Wisconsin nonprofits working in Haiti, and asked if we could please help.
Cyndy and Tom Schuetz of the organization Friends of the Children introduced us to Haiti. They took a small team of dentists and physicians to the area twice a year. Our nonprofit, Yonn Ede Lot (“One Helping Another”), located in the same region, partnered with local Haitian associations to improve leadership and the economy.
Hundreds of charities directed their focus to the country when the hurricanes hit. Mike and I received calls and emails from our connections involved with international relief. They knew emergency procedures, but not the island. Could we provide a translator, someone with a truck or, perhaps, a regional guide? They were heading to the northwest sector, near Gonaives, where the most severe destruction occurred. We asked, but no one was interested in the south where Lamontay lay.
Just two months earlier, Mike and I approached friends and family for donations to projects that Yonn Ede Lot (YEL) was beginning. We presented our case in direct mail and newsletters as an organization that held focused and attainable objectives. We knew mission statements were not meant to be broken. Yet, Mike and I discussed the rationale for putting YEL’s objectives on temporary hold.
We agreed the associations in Lamontay couldn’t get anything done on their projects if nothing could be found to eat or plant. Donors seemed to agree — we received unsolicited donations with the word “Hurricane” written on the memo line.
I sat in my living room in Wisconsin, calling the headquarters of many of the organizations whose staffs had called us looking for logistical support. Over and over, I introduced myself, my organization and where in Haiti we were working. “We’re trying to get emergency help to people in that region. They’re cut off from food and medical aid. What sort of support can you offer?” Cyndy, from the other nonprofit, and I called every relief organization we could think of. There was little response; Lamontay wasn’t on their radar.
Mike didn’t have our patience. Some in our support circle agreed with his frustration. They thought his presence in Haiti might be able to dislodge the backup that kept relief agencies from getting to Lamontay. He did what we told everyone NOT to do—become part of a relief effort when you’re not a relief worker. The last thing Haiti needed was another mouth to feed, another person to work around. It seemed like such a futile shot in the dark, but ….
Mike flew into Port-au-Prince, surprised at the calm in the airport, considering the chaos in other parts of the country. He met Voltaire, and together, they withdrew $2,000 for emergency relief. The teller brought stacks of money — worn 50- and 100-gourde notes—to her transaction window. Voltaire bought Mike a duffel bag in which to carry it.
While Voltaire remained in Port-au-Prince for his teaching job, Mike met up with Junior, a translator we met some years back. Only 23, he was lanky and loose compared to Voltaire’s intensity.
Junior and Mike went to take public transportation to the coastal city of Jacmel. The main bus terminal was an unruly place in the calmest of conditions: Fifty or more vehicles parked in the same direction surrounded by a consistent traffic jam. Mike’s large size always made him feel cramped, but this time, he held the duffel bag and a backpack on his lap. Once the minivan started, the going was slow — the road was washed out in many places. Normally a three-hour trip, it took six.
Jacmel appeared as if a power washer blasted through. The city smelled clean as the hurricanes had gathered all the garbage, accumulated since the last storm, and dumped it into the bay. Close to the ocean, the current of the river was too strong and deep to safely cross. Junior and Mike walked inland where entrepreneurs strung ropes from one side to the other. They charged travelers for passage and for carrying luggage (or sometimes travelers) across the waterway.
Once on the other side, the two hitched a few rides, but most of the trip, they walked. The sun was shining, but the ground seemed as if it would never dry out.
Along the way, the owner of a small farm showed them the erosion, where great gullies and small waterfalls formed and washed away the topsoil, exposing rock beneath. Like so many others, the tin roof of her house blew off and then rain seeped in through the top of the walls. Soon, the walls oozed water, and mold turned them green or black. “Inside, everything was wet—clothes, schoolwork, mattresses—all useless now,” Mike said. “A little Tupperware would have gone a long way.”
He continued, “I finally understand why some places —like the school near the beach — are built with three or four inches between the boards of their walls. They look rough, but they’re effective. The wind can blow right through them.”
Junior led Mike along steep goat paths down the side of one valley and up the other as the two made their way toward Lamontay. They saw a large truck trying to cross a creek. The soil was so saturated that it gave way and buried the truck up to its wheels. Four or five passengers who rode on top of the sacks of rice and beans were trying to dig the truck out, but it was too wet to get a foothold. Mike suggested they call the villagers to come and help pass the food off the vehicle, lightening the load and moving the meals one step closer to the mouths that needed them. Junior shook his head, explaining they were entrepreneurs, making money from the disaster. He was appalled. “Not only are they making money,” he said, “but they’re selling this food for a lot higher than normal.” The two kept walking.
“Everything that was still alive was thinner,” Mike said.
Mike saw Willy and his family and noted they lost weight since he saw them, just six months ago. Two of Willy’s sisters’ braided hair was the color of rust, an indication of protein deficiency. The villagers walked as if they had no energy — a lack of nutrition and hunger, not to mention getting beat on by four different storms.
“They were weak,” Mike said, “and, I think, recognized the amount of work ahead of them.”
In Lamontay, Mike divided the money he carried between the three volunteer groups, with which our organization had partnered. The leaders immediately took mules to Jacmel to bring food back to the area. Even then, there would be hundreds of people who would be without.
He called me a couple of times by cell phone. The phone companies repaired their towers in record speed and instituted a procedure to text emergency notices about future hurricanes to customers. Mike asked me, “Have you or Cyndy found any resources to help Lamontay?”
“She’s in contact with the U.S. Navy, which anchored an aircraft carrier in Port-au-Prince.” I said. “They told her they could send a helicopter with supplies if our connection on the ground — that would be you — can give them an exact GPS location and guarantee their safety.”
“It’s the goddamn Navy!” he exploded. “Sure, tell them to land where the villagers play soccer, that’s as exact as I can get; and I personally promise to hold off a thousand very hungry families from our own armed services.”
The next day, I related to Mike that the Navy completed its mission and was shutting down its relief efforts to Haiti without helping the area. He couldn’t hear me because I screamed the information to him over the sound of Navy helicopters — oblivious to Lamontay’s plight — flying over his head. Mike yelled back he and Junior would try their luck back in Port-au-Prince.
Cyndy and I continued calling. She eventually found a receptive group with offices in the Haiti’s capital. The U.S.-based organization would not make any assurances until it saw a representative from ours or Cyndy’s nonprofit. Junior and Mike visited the office and exacted the staff’s promise. By the time Mike returned to the States two days later, Junior reported two trucks delivered rice and beans to Lamontay. Our nonprofit could return from its temporary mission back to its core objectives.
Back in our Wisconsin living room, Mike and I talked about Haiti’s disaster experience. We could see the enormity of the relief efforts, but believed they were run illogically — foreigners unfamiliar with the local situation providing most of the help. We hoped the situation in Lamontay could improve before the next disaster struck. Our partner organizations worked to improve the quality of their construction projects — each should be able to withstand a natural disaster. Some months later, one of the groups established a seed bank, a watertight storage unit for the community’s seeds. Not only did it provide safety, but the storage also allowed the group to sell seed when the market price was at its highest.
At Willy’s family’s, the surviving hens that were kept in the house during the storms had more chicks, plenty of palm fronds lay available for reroofing and his father and brothers planted their small farm with relief seed. As always in Lamontay, they managed the most difficult of situations.