Rampaging gangs leave Haiti at risk as hurricane season starts

Haiti police

Police officers stand at a checkpoint on a street, inspecting passing cars and motorcycles to ensure that no one is carrying weapons, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti May 24, 2024.


Photo credit: Reuters

Eveline Janvier's teenage son died when he was swept away by floods in Haiti last year and her grief is shot through with the knowledge that this year's hurricane season will likely cause more tragedy in a nation brought to its knees by gang violence.

Janvier 40, lives in the coastal town of Leogane, about 30 km (19 miles) west of the capital Port-au-Prince, where thousands of people have been killed and displaced by fighting between heavily armed gangs.

In Leogane, hundreds of people are still living in damaged homes and tents after the floods that killed 16-year-old Wilner, who Janvier described as a "very kind, intelligent and respectful boy".

With US meteorologists forecasting an "extraordinary" Atlantic hurricane season in coming months, there is little hope of any respite for those left homeless.

"Our biggest concern is that there's no guarantee that anything would be different should we face similar disasters today, because no serious measures have been taken to minimize the consequences of such catastrophes," said Janvier.

Fighting between armed gangs has utterly upended life in Haiti, making it even harder to cope with the tropical cyclones that are becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change.

Major ports have been closed, cutting off key supplies of food, medicine and aid, and intensifying a humanitarian crisis that has plunged about five million people into hunger on this Caribbean island that lies right in the path of hurricanes.

More than 1,500 Haitians have been killed by gang violence in the first three months of 2024, with nearly 5,000 killed last year, and thousands of women have been victims of sexual violence, according to the U.N.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes in Port-au-Prince, and food prices are soaring as gangs extort illegal taxes and block transport.

But worse may yet be to come for the beleaguered citizens of a country that is also regularly hit by earthquakes, including the devastating 2010 quake that levelled Port-au-Prince and killed around 200,000 people.

As the hurricane season gets underway, most Haitians are too focused on day-to-day survival to be able to prepare for possible storms.

"It is already a crisis," said Prospery Raymond, country director of a consortium of three NGOs in Port-au-Prince.

Some communities hit by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 - the most powerful Caribbean storm in a decade - are still recovering from the fallout with people still living in tents, he said.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is forecasting up to seven major hurricanes during this year's June-November season - and that terrifies Haitians like Raymond.

"If a hurricane were to hit Haiti, it will have a catastrophic effect," Raymond said.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, 41 million people living in coastal areas - 6% of the region's population - are exposed to life-threatening storms and flooding, according to new data published by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in May.

Haiti is further exposed as 133 hospitals, 10% of the total, are in low-lying areas.

Emmanuel Pierre, who heads Haiti's National Emergency Operations Center (COUN), said while preparations for the hurricane season are "well underway", the ubiquity of armed gangs was impeding efforts to get ready.

A new disaster situation room was set up in June, volunteer-led civil protection groups have been re-activated, and COUN's central warehouse has been stocked with supplies like tents, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Alert systems are being tested, and there are also plans to create two regional hubs to improve the distribution of hygiene kits and food if disaster strikes.

But all these efforts are being stymied by gangs, who control entire neighborhoods, set up roadblocks and impose curfews.

"A very difficult challenge we've been facing is to actually supply centers outside of Port-au-Prince because of armed gangs who occupy the main roads and neighborhoods around them," said Pierre.

"We often have to skirt regular roads to avoid contact with armed bandits," he added.

In response, COUN officials have been identifying local suppliers in remote areas who will be able to buy food and equipment for them. These suppliers are also helping people to rebuild homes destroyed by previous floods and a tornado that barreled into northwest Haiti in late May.

Another option has been to "cut a deal with some boat owners and captains" to buy supplies in Port-au-Prince and then ship them to communities in need, said Pierre.

Daily Survival 

At the national government level, hurricane preparations have taken a backseat to other pressing priorities, like installing a functioning government.

Interim Prime Minister Garry Conille, who was sworn in on June 3, has to select a new cabinet and get a transition council to agree on how to improve security and restore control.

Restoring political stability is a priority for the U.N. agencies and other local and foreign aid groups trying to deliver food and other essential items in areas controlled by gangs.

"Security challenges do affect our work, our ability to reach communities," said Abdoulaye Sawadogo, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)in Haiti.

"We work with local authorities, community leaders, religious leaders and some influencers in the areas to facilitate safe passage and ensure humanitarian access," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a written response to questions.

Despite the security challenges, NGO head Raymond said some aid groups have managed to carry out refresher courses and training for volunteers from the civil defense force to prepare for potential hurricanes.

Many local communities are taking the lead in preparation activities and have identified churches and schools that can be used as shelters during a hurricane, he added.

But the country's state of permacrisis means people like Janvier know they are at the mercy of the winds when they start roaring again on an island already laid low by unrelenting cycles of conflict and disaster.

"In our community people worry about a problem only while it's happening," she said. "Otherwise, people continue to go about their business, until the next disaster."