Recent heavy rains and consequent flooding in Haiti’s Côte Sud region—the site of the Côte Sud Initiative (CSI) and Port-à-Piment, designated as the first Millennium Village in the Western Hemisphere—required the not-yet fully formed project team to leverage the CSI partnership framework to help coordinate an immediate and ultimately lifesaving emergency response.
By Alex Fischer and Marc Levy
When the Earth Institute Haiti team received an urgent email on October 10th—“We are in day three of heavy rains here. The river is about to breach the new retaining wall in the town of Port-à-Piment”—it was also the first test of the team and CSI project partnership.
The email was from local M.D. Lino Roberto Georges, the Millennium Village Health Sector lead and resident of the town of Port-à-Piment. Rains had quickly turned heavy and continuous, causing severe flooding in the Côte Sud region. Emails from Georges later that day depicted a dire situation in the village and a concern that once again, long-term development objectives would be undermined and sacrificed for immediate emergency needs. Dr. Jean Rouchon, senior health advisor for the Center for Global Health and Economic Development, responded by email:
It is clear that we are facing two major catastrophes in Port-a-Piment and in Rendel. Severe flooding threatens communities and the rains are quickly spreading the deadly outbreak of cholera. Both disasters necessitate quick actions and large investments beyond the capacity of the current MVP budgets.
A few minutes after the first email came in, Wade McGillis, Lamont-Doherty associate research professor and lead research hydrologist for the CSI, using a satellite-linked weather station, revealed sobering data: 4 inches of rain had fallen within a 24-hour span. The weather station, installed in Port-à-Piment in 2010, provides constant climate condition data via the Web.
Because the terrain in Port-à-Piment is steep and heavily degraded, heavy rainfall means large volumes of water cascade down a narrow passage, endangering people, facilities, and crops. For this region of Haiti, 4 inches in a single day is potentially deadly. Over the three consecutive days of heavy rains, the region received more than 12 inches of rain—three times that already dangerous amount fallen.
Rapid Flooding Cuts Off Access to the Upper Watershed
The Côte Sud region, the coast of Haiti’s southern peninsula, is a historically vulnerable flood region. The Millennium Village Project in Port-á-Piment (MVP), one of the multiple watersheds in this region being studied as part of the Côte Sud Initiative, was originally identified as one of the high-risk zones for flooding and erosion. Within a day of heavy rain, the rivers swelled and the upper watershed areas were cut off from communication and transportation. People were unable to cross the raging waters to reach medical services and unable to climb the mountains to bring critical supplies. Cholera cases, already prevalent and on the rise in the area, reportedly multiplied.
Local Efforts Feed Larger Relief Response
By the end of the second day of rains, the Government of Haiti’s emergency response system was activated at the regional level, with a call for immediate meetings to coordinate relief. While UNOPS and the Catholic Relief Services were mobilizing supplies and support, MVP Health Lead Dr. Georges was coordinating local communication of needs and preparing for potential evacuations. In coordination with the local civil protection committee, he was also providing comprehensive information to authorities, conducting rapid needs assessments of clinics and damages in Port-a-Piment watershed, and was acting as the critical link to information from the upper watershed town of Rendel. Dr. Georges was the main source of reporting to the authorities and the conduit for identifying critical needs such as IV fluids for cholera patients, food shortages in upper watershed areas, and specific medical supplies. Thirty-six hours after the upper areas were cut off by the river, he had enough power in his phone left to email regarding a nurse’s plea for help: “…The nurse in charge at Rendel called. She is panicking. As mentioned in the last emails, unfortunately, she has no more IV Fluids and above all it starts raining again at Rendel. The situation is very critical. They need URGENT help.”
Once Georges established contact with the Government of Haiti and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) — the lead organization within the CSI partnership for managing disaster response and the main NGO in the south appointed by the government to coordinate services in these situations—they were able to use the information he provided to quickly organize relief efforts. The assessments sent by cellphone photos and emails from MVP teams were passed to CRS. Dr. Jude Bannatte, CRS program director, ensured medical equipment and food were available to be distributed in the emergency context and maintained close coordination with the government. UNOPS Project Coordinator Jacqueline Fabius organized UN helicopter support to deliver these life-saving supplies.
This successful coordinated effort came directly out of the partnership framework of the Côte Sud Initiative and demonstrates the critical role the partnership framework can play for local focal points to coordinate information with regional programs.
This is Part I of a two-part blog: find Part II here.
The Côte Sud Initiative is a major collaboration between the United Nations, the Earth Institute, and the Government of Haiti that works on a regional level to implement sustainable approaches to solve some of the country’s most pressing challenges: post-disaster recovery, economic and social development, environmental stabilization and restoration, and disaster risk management. Working in tandem with regional efforts is the Port-à-Piment Millennium Village, the first Millennium Village Project in the Western Hemisphere, which aims to demonstrate the power of collaborative thematic and integrated approaches to development from the local to the regional scale. The CSI and MVP are components of the Haiti Regeneration Initiative. For more information, visit www.haitiregeneration.org.
Alex Fischer is program manager for Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and Cote Sud Initiative (CSI) technical and research coordinator.
Marc Levy is CIESIN deputy director and principal investigator for Earth Institute research projects in the CSI.