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Haiti under red alert, Tomas likely to arrive as hurricane

Haiti, November 4, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Ben Depp for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Ben Depp for Mercy Corps

Today Mercy Corps' Haiti team continued to help ready camps and communities for the arrival of a possible hurricane tonight. Now, along with the Haitian government and other aid agencies, Mercy Corps is responding to three emergencies: earthquake, cholera and storm.

I just spoke with program manager Trish Morrow, who has led our delivery of water and sanitation services to Port-au-Prince camps since shortly after the January 12 earthquake. Skies over Port-au-Prince were darkening and winds were starting to whip tarps and tents in the camps.

Trish and her team were in the camps to assess the needs, urge people to evacuate and seek safer shelter with family or friends or at local schools, tie down their tents, protect their belongings, and stock up on water, food and flashlights. As a veteran water and sanitation emergency responder, Trish's greatest concern is always with preventing the spread of waterborne disease.

"If the storm brings heavy rain," she says, "flood waters will increase the risk of disease, so making sure that people have clean water, water treatment tablets and that they are practicing good hygiene is especially important." Given the state of sanitation in Haiti, flood water becomes quickly contaminated with sewage and trash — especially in urban areas.

Since cholera appeared in Haiti two weeks ago for the first time in 50 years, our team has been out in the camps and rural communities to deliver information on cholera prevention and treatment, and to distribute soap. They've reached nearly 15,000 people so far.

The greatest concern with this storm is exceptionally heavy rainfall. Even during typical storms in Haiti, rain produces flash flooding and mudslides. The deforestation of Haiti's mountains means that rainwater has nothing to absorb it, and it comes down in a hurry.

This rainy season, I've seen relatively dry riverbeds fill in a matter of hours, turn thick milky brown, permeate the air with the smell of earth, river banks covered in trash crumbling in, and whole trees and stumps carried along to the sea. In Port-au-Prince, the hilly streets are filled with rushing water — people say they've seen cars carried away during storms. All that to say, conditions get very dangerous.

When the storm hits — likely tonight — everyone will have to stop and take shelter, including our team, but they're readying themselves and emergency supplies to respond as soon as they can after the storm passes.