Haiti spared the worst of Tomas

For residents of Haiti, still struggling to recover from last January's destructive earthquake and more recently trying to cope with an outbreak of cholera, the country dodged a bullet.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
People walk in a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Tomas in the neighborhood of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday Nov. 6, 2010.

Tropical storm Tomas is heading into the central Atlantic Ocean after splitting the uprights – the 50-mile -wide Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba – as a category 1 hurricane Friday.

After inflicting an estimated $185 million in damage on the island of St. Lucia in the Lesser Antilles last weekend, resulting in 14 deaths, Tomas's effect on Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic has been more restrained.

For residents of Haiti, still struggling to recover from last January's destructive earthquake and more recently trying to cope with an outbreak of cholera, the country dodged a bullet. So far, seven fatalities have been attributed to Tomas so far, mostly around the town of Leogane, southwest of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The city lies in a region where flooding and storm surge were said to be particularly heavy.

IN PICTURES: Tropical storm Tomas

There, initial reports indicate the storm destroyed 48 homes, partially damaged as many as 2,800, and slightly damaged another 150. But vast numbers of people in tent cities to the east have largely been spared, if initial reports hold up.

In Cuba, civil-defense officials said their country sustained little damage and no fatalities, according to the Cuban News Agency.

In Jamaica, officials were fending off questions about whether the government had over-prepared in the face of tropical-storm warnings.

"There can be no over-planning or over-reaction when there is a probable threat of a disaster," government information minister Daryl Vaz told reporters after Tomas had passed. "This was probably the best prepared we have been in terms of being proactive and doing everything we needed to do" to protect Jamaicans.

Meanwhile, across Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic, floods from the storm destroyed an estimated 1,700 homes and forced at least 8,500 people to evacuate. So far, no fatalities have been reported.

Prior to the storm, concerns centered on the effect a direct hit would have on some 1.3 million people living in tent cities in and around the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. In some ways, it's a vulnerability too many Haitians have long experienced, says Julie Schindall, a spokeswoman for Oxfam/America in Port-au-Prince.

She notes that before the earthquake, some 80 percent of the capital's residents lived in slums in shelters hardly more robust than the tents that now house them. Even before the quake, they lived "in a country that doesn't have the infrastructure to take care of itself on a day-to-day basis the way that its neighboring countries do," she says.

As it turned out, winds in the capital were mild, and the rainfall not nearly as heavy as people feared. The worst flooding came to tent cities built on the streets of Port-au-Prince, says Andrea Koppel, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross who currently is in the capital. There were no other paths for running water to follow.

Outside the city center, the Red Cross had been working with residents for months to dig drainage ditches and build sandbag retaining walls to keep water and mud at bay.

Teams have been working their way through these areas assessing any damage, Ms. Koppel notes. And while they have yet to report in, she says she counts it as an encouraging sign that during the height of the storm, volunteers in these areas still had cell phone service, and they reported nothing significant in the way of damage.

Prior to the storm, public health officials and aid groups were trying to stem an outbreak of cholera that threatened to reach the city and spread. At the time, representatives of the American Red Cross in Port-au-Prince expressed concerns over the effect flooding through the tent cities would have in spreading the disease.

So far, public-health officials have succeeded in keeping the small handful of cases isolated, Koppel says.

Given the 800 people killed during the 2008 hurricane season, when Haiti fell within the crosshairs of four tropical cyclones and fewer people were exposed to the elements, "we got very, very lucky" with Tomas, Koppel says.

The event once again throws a spotlight on the challenges the international community faces in trying to keep the tottering country upright while also trying to help it rebuild and become self-sustaining, aid workers say.

Tomas's timing was terrible, Oxfam's Ms. Schindall says, adding, "I sincerely hope that this is a reminder to us all that we need to seize on this opportunity after the earthquake to rebuild this country properly."

IN PICTURES: Tropical storm Tomas

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