By David Snyder
Through my work with agencies like Caritas Internationalis, it is a rare chance to return to countries I have visited around the world to see the progress made in the wake of natural disasters, like the hurricanes that struck Gonaives, Haiti, in August and September 2008. But today, that is what I did here in Gonaives. It is a very different place now than it was when I was here in October 2008.
Then, the city was still reeling from the combined effects of Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna, which devastated Haiti, killing more than 800 people and affecting 850,000 people across the island nation. Surrounded by hillsides denuded of vegetation, and pinned against the sea, Gonaives was among the worst hit areas in the country. Pounded by heavy rains, the city was flooded by water reaching 12 feet in many places. In their wake the storms left the city encased in more than three million cubic meters of mud. When I left here in October, agencies were estimating it would take two years to clear the city streets.
But work has gone much faster than anyone imagined. I spent the day today with Caritas Haiti staff members, visiting several of the more than 80 schools cleared of mud through Caritas Cash For Work projects. These projects, which launched when I was last here, have thus far employed more than 5,000 people affected by the storms to clear mud from schools, houses, and streets in Gonaives. Within two months of the storm, many schools were reopening.
“I am very surprised it was done so quickly,” said Fr. Michelet Germain, Director of the St. Paul School, whose mud-caked compound I passed nearly every day during my last trip here. Today when I visited, little evidence of the storm remained, and the schoolyard was crowded with more than 1,100 students of all ages, back in class.
Though work remains to be done, Caritas and other agencies, working with the government of Haiti, have cleared an estimated 75% of the mud from the city in just seven months. As that effort nears its end, Caritas will next turn its attention in Haiti to rebuilding the economic livelihoods of some of those affected by the storms. In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, such efforts are much needed. And while that work is yet to begin, today offered a unique chance for me, as a photographer and writer who too often sees countries only in the throes of calamity: the chance to see a country shaking off the dark days of the past, and looking again towards the future.