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The poorest lift the heaviest burdens

If you want to see the consequences of real government and infrastructure failure in the face of overwhelming natural disaster, visit Gonaives, the fourth-largest city in Haiti.

As New Orleans and other communities along the US Gulf Coast struggled to recover from hurricane Katrina and braced for the arrival of hurricane Rita, the people of this city on Haiti's western coast marked the first anniversary of a similar catastrophe. That was Tropical Storm Jeanne, which left 3,000 dead and missing, buried the city in mud, destroyed homes, and generated an outbreak of civil turmoil among people crazed by the lack of food, shelter, and health facilities.

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The number of people who died here is far less than the number who may have perished in the earthquake that struck south Asia this month, but the levels of poverty and vulnerability are the same, and in proportion to the total populations, the casualties in Gonaives are actually greater. Moreover, Haiti is practically on America's doorstep.

For the people of Gonaives, there was no government assistance at any level, no one to blame for the catastrophic consequences. Neither was there a weather channel to warn the people of Gonaives they were in danger of a devastating flood. In fact, having gone without rain for a long time, the people in this agricultural heartland sang and danced in the streets when the rain began to fall on Sept. 17, 2004.

But the celebration stopped as the rain kept pouring, bringing a torrent of water and mud and debris down the steep, deforested mountains, wiping out vast banana plantations and rice paddies, crashing into homes and hurtling everything in its surge, including, eventually, the bodies of hapless people and animals.

The Rev. Venel Suffrard, a Catholic priest who is the Gonaives director of Caritas, the humanitarian and relief agency of the Haitian Catholic Church, says that by evening, the water level had reached more than nine feet, submerging most of the homes in Gonaives. He watched as the detritus of humanity and all it possessed swept by in a roaring cascade of water and mud.

"There was no government help to prepare or to mitigate against this disaster," he says. "The government declared an emergency, but it did nothing."

Neither did the United Nations troops who had been brought into the country after the latest riddance of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide seven months earlier.

As the water began to recede, settling Gonaives into a mass of gunk, the task of collecting the dead began. Father Suffrard went into the streets and began picking up bodies. Noticing some UN peacekeepers nearby, he asked them to help, but they responded it was not part of their mandate.

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In the end, Suffrard collected 97 bodies, putting sometimes more than a dozen at a time into his vehicle, and carried them into the town morgue.

Soon the business of cleaning up the town and getting food to the people began, still without much help from the government. Relief agencies such as Caritas's partner, US-based Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, CARE, Oxfam, Plan, and UNICEF, started bringing in supplies and money to help restore order.

In a jobs program, the people of Gonaives were given tools and paid two dollars a day - less than the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks - to start cleaning up. On the outskirts of Gonaives, hundreds of people work under this program to this day, shoring up the banks of La Quinte River, which became the crushing path of death for so many of their friends and families.

There is no multibillion- dollar government-directed program in place to help with this grueling work in 105-degree heat. It is done by hand and ax and wheelbarrow.

Prucien Jesula was among those beneficiaries of the cash-for-work program in Gonaives. She hauled mud by the hundreds of pounds for days and weeks and months to try to clean up her city.

Even here, she says, they have heard of the storms that have ravaged America's Gulf coast. "We feel terrible," she says. "I know their suffering, as it is the same as we endured."

Yes and no. More people died here. And a year later, the survivors are still trying to recover, without nearly the global attention that has been heaped upon New Orleans and will be again when the first anniversary of Katrina is marked.

It's not just the American poor who suffer the worst in natural and man-made disasters. The impact on the poorest and most vulnerable is universal, as the south Asia earthquake demonstrated again. Outside of America, though, they are more familiar with it.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Baltimore Sun. He visited Haiti as a consultant for Catholic Relief Services.


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