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Flying over Gonaïves, I am taken back to September 2004. It is almost four years to the date that tropical storm Jeanne hit. Two weeks ago, it was tropical storm Hanna. It's the same city yet some things are different this time. Today I am arriving in a UN helicopter; back then I was in a four-by-four vehicle driving through the lake that had become Route Nationale No. 1—a lake that had just about dried up before Hanna hit.
More than 3,000 people lost their lives to Jeanne. A wall of water swept through the streets of Gonaïves in the middle of the night in 2004. This time, thankfully, the number of deaths is much lower.
"Unlike with Jeanne, the people of Gonaïves had time to react to Hanna," explains Oxfam's Max Astier. "The floodwaters began to rise in the middle of the afternoon and people were able move to higher ground before the water could gain strength as it rose. And don't forget, the people of Gonaïves have not forgotten Jeanne."
While there are differences between then and now, unfortunately there are also numerous similarities. Everywhere you look people of all ages are flinging mud out of their homes and businesses. They are armed with whatever they can find to use as shovels, trying to salvage whatever they can. The same naked mountains envelope the city and stagnant water, thick mud, and piles of destroyed personal belongings line the streets. As we drive through one neighborhood, I hear a man singing. I turn to see who it is and find an elderly man struggling to remove the sludge from him damaged home. He sees me and smiles and keeps on working.
As I walk up to an informal shelter—the building of a neighborhood construction supply business—I am greeted by a group of women washing at a water pump in the yard. Despite the obvious despair they must be feeling, they smile warmly and tell me that by the grace of God they are still here—and are hanging on. They accompany me to the roof of the two-story building where I can get a better view of their neighborhood—still full of water and knee-high mud.
"The second rains did the most damage," said Theresa Jean, a 40-year-old mother of three. "It started raining at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and by 9 or 10pm we were in trouble. The water was so high and my one child was so afraid, I had to carry him over my head as I waded through the water to come here."
Her friend Anne Sejours adds, "My four children and I have absolutely nowhere to go now."
According to Oxfam's ongoing assessment in the city, there are close to 100 formal shelters along with the numerous unidentified, informal shelters that have also been established, like the one I visited. An estimated 50,000 people are currently housed in these. Oxfam has completed full assessments in more than 55 of the formal shelters in Gonaïves and has begun distributing water and basic goods in some of them.