In the days leading up to Hurricane Tomas, the NGO at which Christa and I live and work began intense preparations for the impending storm. We began securing all loose materials, disassembling tents, packing emergency bags, and storing hurricane supplies for a possible hibernation. Every meeting was a storm update. First it was a tropical storm, then a tropical depression, then a category one hurricane. First it was heading directly toward Leogane, then it moved farther and farther west toward Les Cayes, then into the sea and over Guatanamo Bay. The reality is, much like the daily weather forecasts we watch on local syndicates in the States, there was very little accuracy in these predictions and significant room for error.
Local volunteers and employees were informed that, should the hurricane require some form of lock-down, they would be welcome to join. However, discussion of the possible effects of Tomas inevitably led to panic among locals privy to our conversation.
Regardless of the storm’s magnitude, Leogane was slated to flood…it always has. Leogane’s residents understand their position on a flood plane, as well as the potential danger and damage that accompany their geography. Yet, with the international community preparing for the worst, the seeming likelihood of its possibility increased for the local population. Not only was there potential infrastructural damage, but what about the spread of disease? What about cholera? And while the international community was equipped with the resources for preparation, most Leoganese were not.
Christa and I prepared a list of supplies and a memory matching game to play with children so that they understand the materials necessary to confront the aftermath of a hurricane. Non-perishable foods, potable water, batteries, flashlight, whistle, first aid kit and medicine. I decided to impart this information to one of my brothers (you all remember Benji?). I said to him, “Benji, ou bezwen prepare pou loraj ke pral gwondi [Benji, you have to prepare for the storm that’s coming].” I recounted the list of supplies that could easily prepare someone for an impending storm. He listened intently. When I finished, he said frankly, “Jessi, pa gen kob pou tout sa yo [Jessi, we don’t have the money for all of that].”
I was ashamed by my own questioning. Benji’s mother and father struggle to acquire sufficient funds to feed their children on a daily basis, and I was asking them to gather hurricane supplies. I quickly told him that I would happily help him and his family acquire food items after the storm and told him to move all valuables to a high place. We changed the subject soon after.
My next conversation was with Belande. Belande’s resources are slightly less finite than those of other community members, and I felt it realistic to have a conversation with her about preparedness.
Yet, in attempting to share knowledge with Belande, I confronted an entirely different problem. Belande owns a one-story house in Leogane, a house that withstood the January 12th earthquake and its aftershocks and was deemed structurally sound in an assessment conducted by an engineer, but in which she refuses to sleep with her family because it is made with cement. She will never sleep under cement again. Instead, she sleeps cramped among her three children in a tin-roofed shack in her backyard just in case another earthquake hits.
I spoke with her regarding moving into her cement structure during the storm. Her temporary structure is not elevated, and both homes sit behind an irrigation ditch that would definitely flood. She, of course, refused. “Mwen pa ka rete anba beton [I can’t sleep under cement],” she reminded me. She assured me she would find a friend or relative with whom to stay for the safety of her children, but whoever it was would not be living in a cement structure.
Luckily, the storm that began Thursday evening was no hurricane, but the flooding came regardless. Belande’s house and those of her neighbors became an island. The streets, rivers. Buildings—including Hospital St. Croix, which only recently reopened after the earthquake—filled with mud. Yet, during the whole ordeal, Leogane’s residents walked the streets in boots and galoshes, drinking their coffee, chatting amongst family and friends; marchands continued selling egg sandwiches and sodas, and life went on.
After the storm on Saturday morning, we continued with Plaza Playtime, a weekly timeslot in which volunteers organize activities with children from local neighborhoods and camps. We were unsure whether children would attend given the rains, but let’s be honest, children love to play regardless of the condition.
Because the ground was so wet, we dissuaded most of the boys from playing their usual game of soccer and instead brought out a brand new map that we purchased all the way in Port-au-Prince (finding a map in Leogane is a near impossibility).
Our mini-lesson began with two boys looking and pointing at different places on the map, but by lesson’s end there were ten. We sat together, looking for Haiti, the United States, countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Together, we attempted to identify what languages people spoke in each place and why they spoke them. When I pointed to Haiti, I asked each boy if they knew what sea surrounded their small island. They said no. I informed them that there were many islands in the Caribbean Sea that shared a similar history and geography as that of Haiti. They were shocked. I told them hurricanes and storms like the one they had just experienced hit other places nearby like St. Lucia and St. Vincent, and hit them harder than they had Haiti. They had had no idea.
While they bombarded me with questions about these new facts, I thought to myself: children must understand that they are not alone in the world, that they are not exclusive victims to tragedy and hardship. These boys must learn—perhaps, from me, perhaps from someone who follows, perhaps, from life itself—that hurricanes and earthquakes and disasters of all kinds hit Haiti, but they don’t exclusively hit Haiti; that the world over deals with disaster, and that some of us are better prepared than others because some of us are more privileged than others, whether that privilege manifests itself in monetary wealth, access to information, or location. Some of us have adequate time and means for preparedness, whereas some of us do not. And while in an ideal world, we would all be well equipped to handle natural and man-made disasters, some of us must work harder than others.