The Drowning Pool
MAPOU, Haiti — It happened suddenly, while everyone was asleep. First came the sound of a strong wind and then the water roared down the mountain and smashed through Mapou, a poor farming community about 30 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, turning it into a drowning pool.
The scene was also replayed in other villages in the southeastern part of Haiti and across the border in the Dominican Republic as torrential rains at the end of May in those poverty-stricken countries washed away homes, destroyed crops, killed livestock and caused death and misery for thousands of people.
Rescue workers on the Caribbean island have been hampered by poor roads, so emergency relief has been slow to reach some areas, relief officials said.
By June 7, Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the U.S. bishops, had raised $222,000 in private funds that is being used to buy items such as food, potable water, medicine and materials for shelter. It has also received a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for emergency non-food relief items, said Brian Shields, a Catholic Relief Services’ spokesman.
In Haiti alone, about 1,500 people are estimated to be dead and 1,500 missing, with about 25,000 people dislocated from their homes, said Sheyla Biamby, program manager for social assistance for Catholic Relief Services Haiti.
One Catholic Relief Services eyewitness to the flooding in Mapou, who walked six hours along with four other relief workers to bring the survivors there some food, said he saw coconut trees submerged in water.
“All the agriculture is devastated,” said George Malval, Catholic Relief Services’ garage manager. “There is practically nothing for them to eat. Only coconuts and mangos.”
About 100 Haitians walked back with the relief workers in order to pick up and carry home rice, potatoes, corn, wheat, toothbrushes, toothpaste and cooking pots, Malval said.
One survivor of the Mapou flood said neighbors told her of their harrowing escape from the flood. They pierced open their tin roof with machetes, pulled themselves to the top of the roof, and then, with the water steadily rising toward them, the family, which included two elderly people, climbed onto coconut and orange trees that had limbs above their home, according to Biamby, who relayed the account from a woman who was a neighbor of the family. The family stayed perched on the trees during the night until the morning, when several small wooden boats floated by and rescued them.
In the Dominican Republic, more than 400 people are estimated to have died and more than 300 missing, said Andrew Rosauer, country representative for Catholic Relief Services in the Dominican Republic.
“I was overwhelmed,” Rosauer said when describing the scene he saw at Jimani, a small town in the southwest part of the country near the Haitian border. “The area was just blasted. Nothing was left but gravel and scrap metal. Just imagine, [recently] it was thriving communities. The people are shell-shocked.”
On June 1, a memorial Mass was held in Jimani's town square, with most of the townspeople wearing masks because of the dust. Only days earlier, it had been under about six and a half feet of water, Rosauer said. But the waters had receded in Jimani and the town was back to its former, dusty self — except without the ramshackle homes and businesses that once stood there.
“They can't recover their losses,” Rosauer said. “They have to go on. Given the magnitude of the devastation and the loss, it's going to be hard. There's a lot of work to be done in terms of material and spiritual work.”
Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez Rodriguez, primate of the Church in the Dominican Republic, and several bishops and priests from the surrounding area presided at the Mass. About 800 people attended the nationally televised service, according to Rosauer, who was also there.
“The Mass was very sentimental,” said Bishop Jesus Maria de Jesus Moya of San Francisco de Macoris. “One minute there was joy, another there was sadness. God is the father of love, and during the Mass we explained how we believe in the resurrection, and we believe in the love that unites all of us.”
He said the tragedy has made the people in the town and in Arenoso, another area affected by the torrential rains, more united.
“It has shown us how to work together, one for the other person,” Bishop Moya said, “and it has shown us a world that is united and collaborative.”
The bishops have asked the people to grow spiritually, and the Church has also helped in providing food and various other relief items, said Bishop Moya, president of National Caritas in the Dominican Republic.
“The Church is really coming out as the leader in terms of supporting the people in need,” Rosaeur said.
At the Mass in Jimani, Rosaeur met a woman who was grieving for her dead children. She told him the flood happened at about 4 a.m. She was sleeping when the water swept through their home, which was situated on a dry riverbed, like many of the other homes. Four of her children were swept away. She saved two of them, she told him.
Rosaeur emphasized that people in other parts of the Dominican Republic also are suffering.
In Arenoso, in the north-central part, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas are working without much help from other non-Catholic relief organizations to help the people there, since it hasn't received as much publicity as in Jimani. More than 6,000 families have been affected by the floods there, and more than 20 people have died, he said.
Biamby said the Church in Haiti has also come together to offer its help.
“I know there's a mobilization of the Catholic Church,” Biamby said, “to do prayers and intentions and Masses and to coordinate efforts and actions.”
Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.
- June 20-26, 2004