Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Panic grips Haiti refugee camps as million people are told to evacuate before tropical storm strikes

By Mail Foreign Service
  • Quake victims told to leave low-lying areas with Tomas due to hit tomorrow
  • Health workers fear cholera epidemic will worsen dramatically

More than one million people have been advised to leave earthquake homeless camps in Haiti’s rubble-choked capital as disaster officials watched the approach of Tropical Storm Tomas.

But few of the earthquake survivors, who have spent nearly 10 months alternately baking and soaking under plastic tarps and tents, have anywhere to go.

Disaster officials have extended a red alert, their highest storm warning, to all regions of the country, as Tomas is expected to wind its way up the west coast of Hispaniola through storm-vulnerable Gonaives and Haiti’s second city, Cap-Haitien, sometime on Friday.

The storm, which has the potential to develop into a hurricane before it hits Haiti, is set to pile further agonies upon the stricken and desperate nation, which is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.

Torrential rains are likely to cause floods that will intensify the cholera epidemic, which has already killed 442 people.

More than 6,700 people have already been hospitalised with the disease said Jocelyne Pierre Louis, director of the government’s family health department.

But Tropical Storm Tomas will unleash water surges of up to nine feet that can only worsen the epidemic of the water-borne disease.

‘The biggest fear is people being caught by high waters and the potential spread of cholera,’ said Nigel Fisher, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Haiti.

‘People should (not) be under the misapprehension that it (the epidemic) is under control. The cholera epidemic is likely to spread.’

The outbreak of the disease has triggered yet another national emergency for Haiti.

Tropical Storm Tomas comes with the country still struggling to recover from a January 12 earthquake that killed more than a quarter of a million people and left about 1.3 million survivors still living in fragile outdoor camps.

Tropical Storm Tomas killed at least five people in St. Lucia when it hit the Caribbean as a hurricane four days ago, before weakening.

But forecasters have warned it is gathering force again ahead of its expected arrival in Haiti and Jamaica on Thursday night.

The worst fear is that a hurricane-strength storm hits multiple regions simultaneously, overwhelming the capacity of the government and the aid community to cope.

‘The big challenge is saving lives,’ said Mr Fisher.

‘If the hurricane is so huge that all over the country is hit severely … we will really be stretched and we will have to make difficult choices about where to put scarce assets.’

Tomas restrengthened to a tropical storm on Wednesday, with winds of 45 miles per hour.

Its core was expected to approach Haiti on Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

On Wednesday night, the center of the storm was about 295 miles south west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the hurricane center said.

‘Tomas could be approaching hurricane strength as the center nears Haiti,’ confirmed a spokesman at the Miami-based hurricane center.

The government is urging people in low-lying areas of Haiti to start a voluntary evacuation to higher ground if they can stay with friends or family or in community shelters.

But government capacity to implement an evacuation is limited and leaving will be difficult for hundreds of thousands of people in cramped tented cities and makeshift camps in the capital.

‘We are in month nine of responding to people with needs in camps because of the earthquake,’ said Mr Fisher.

‘We have just had to mobilise a lot of people and resources to respond to cholera.’

The UN immediately needs about 150,000 tents and tarpaulins to provide additional shelter.

The storm threat and the spreading cholera epidemic means Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before the presidential and legislative elections on November 28. Electoral officials have not yet tried to postpone the vote.

In Jamaica, which is also expected to be battered by the storm, authorities are preparing shelters and urging people to evacuate from low-lying and flood-prone areas.

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