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Isaac update: Safety nets working in storm's wake

Haiti, August 30, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Liz Hummer/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The severe deforestation of Haiti's mountains increases the risk of devastating erosion and landslides during storms like Isaac. Photo: Liz Hummer/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Liz Hummer/Mercy Corps  </span>
    We have been working with rural communities to build rock walls like these in Sibase, which protect the soil on their steep hillsides. Mercy Corps teams are visiting farmers here this week to assess how well they worked during Tropical Storm Isaac. Photo: Liz Hummer/Mercy Corps

As we've watched what became Hurricane Isaac batter the U.S. Gulf coast, the importance of a strengthened infrastructure and emergency plan — what we in the development world call "resilience-building" or "disaster risk reduction" — is incredibly clear. And close to home for many.

Here in Haiti, we're grateful that Isaac resulted in less damage over the weekend than we had feared. Still, current reports indicate that 24 people have died, 6,000 people lost their shelters in camps, and 1,000 houses were destroyed.

The government of Haiti, along with the UN and humanitarian agencies, are coordinating relief efforts to provide water, new tents, hygiene supplies, and emergency food to those most affected in the south of the country and in various tent camps around Port-au-Prince.

Despite improvements to emergency response plans since the 2010 earthquake, people in Haiti are still incredibly vulnerable to the devastating effects of natural disasters like Isaac — especially the hundreds of thousands still living in tent camps, and the extensive rural communities where floods and mudslides threaten homes and crops.

Our teams returned on Monday to the mountains of Arcahaie, north of Port-au-Prince, to find out how Isaac affected those very communities where we work. The heavy rains and high winds damaged roads, destroyed some fields and killed animals.

Travel has been difficult, but program staff will soon find out how well the rock walls and other soil conservation structures we've built performed during the storm to prevent widespread erosion on these steep hillsides. What we're initially hearing is that the damage could have been far worse, but we'll continue assessing needs and step in where necessary.

It's events like Isaac that necessitate our Vie, Te & Eneji (Life, Land & Energy) project here. The goal is not only to help farmers improve their harvests, but to protect the land from soil erosion and the communities downstream from devastating runoff during this and future storms.

We're also focusing on long-term protection through MiCRO, the microinsurance company that we started in partnership with local microfinance institution, Fonkoze. The insurance product pays out a fixed sum to female micro-entrepreneurs whose assets are damaged during natural disasters.

LEARN MORE: Inside microinsurance, an interview with James Kurz on our sister blog Global Envision

After Isaac, these women will receive $125 to replace damaged inventory or repair homes and businesses — and their current loan balance will be cancelled, allowing them to focus funds on rebuilding as quickly as possible. It's a life-changing safety net for people who often earn less than $2 per day selling small goods at local markets and have no protection to start over. We'll be working closely with Fonkoze in the coming weeks to ensure timely distribution of funds.

Tropical Storm Isaac was not as devastating as it could have been, but it was a reminder of why our work in Haiti is so important. Building systems to heal the land and protect the people who live here will make a lasting impact that goes beyond today.