Haiti prime minister warns of triple disaster as hurricane Tomas hits

With Haiti recovering from an earthquake and cholera outbreak as hurricane Tomas hit, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Monitor, 'It’s just piling on us, just making bigger and bigger problems.'

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    Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive (r.) listens as former U.S. President Bill Clinton (not pictured) speaks during a news conference outside the prime minister's office in Port-au-Prince, on Oct. 6.
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Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says his government is preparing for three simultaneous humanitarian disasters, as hurricane Tomas began dumping up to 10 inches of rain on the island today.

"It's not like we had the earthquake, then cholera, and now a hurricane," he told the Monitor in an interview Thursday at his private residence in Pétionville. "We still have the consequences of the earthquake, we are facing the cholera ... and now we’re preparing for the hurricane coming, so it’s just piling on us, just making bigger and bigger problems."

Hurricane Tomas skirted Haiti Friday but unleashed 12 hours of rainfall on the island. The US National Hurricane Center in Miami forecasts hurricane conditions to continue into tonight.

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In October, a cholera outbreak in the countryside claimed more than 440 lives and infected thousands more people. It has so far been prevented from spreading to Port-au-Prince, devastated in January's earthquake that killed 300,000 people.

But since the earthquake, Mr. Bellerive says, the Haitian government has learned much from 10 months of relief efforts and was able to prepare for the worst in anticipation of Tomas.

"We have more experience, we have better coordination with NGOs and the humanitarian community, and also we have from day one – and even from day minus one, three or four – the government forewarning," says Bellerive. "Nobody could anticipate the earthquake, or the date of the cholera epidemic. But the hurricane we had days to prepare."

Aid groups and the Haitian government were this week stockpiling tents, water purification equipment, and other emergency supplies around the country. US Southern Command ordered the USS Iwo Jima to Haiti to provide poststorm support.

So far, the densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince have avoided the worst-case scenario of 85 m.p.h. winds ripping through the camps and making matchsticks out of the flimsy shelters.

While Port-au-Prince was spared the brunt of Tomas’s force, the danger now lies with the volume of water soaking the city. The National Hurricane Center warned of potential flash flooding and mudslides. Already, one person drowned today in Les Cayes in the south.

Haiti is vulnerable to severe flooding. Whenever there’s a light shower, neighborhoods like Cite Soleil and Bel Air fill up like bathtubs, bobbing with garbage and human waste. Two days of solid rain could mean raw sewage, trash, and latrines overflowing in the capital's tent camps.

With the threat of a cholera epidemic already looming, Tomas is creating ripe conditions for massive contamination. "The situation will worsen further if you do not follow hygiene guidelines," Minister of Public Health Alex Larsen told local press.

The Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission promised in August to build hurricane shelters for at least 400,000 people within three months. But the majority of the capital's 1.3 million homeless have no permanent shelter as Tomas begins to rain down.

"Tomas and cholera are exams for the UN and international NGOs, which will reveal how well they have been performing so far," says Etan Dupin, editor of Kreole newspaper Bri Kori Nouvel Gaye (translated "Noise Travels, News Spreads"). "They have known for 10 months our vulnerability to both these catastrophes and they have been given the maximum time to prepare.”

Since the cholera outbreak, Mr. Dupin has been driving his truck around the capital and provinces. Using a megaphone and speakers attacked to the truck's roof, he advises locals how to avoid contamination. Dupin says he and his newspaper staff have handed out more than 150,000 flyers warning of cholera.

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