Aid workers rushed Monday to prepare for a hurricane that forecasters said could hit Haiti this week. It’s a formidable challenge in a nation already coping with a cholera epidemic and trying to help hundreds of thousands still living in tent camps nearly 10 months after a devastating earthquake.
Many people in the camps said they didn’t know Tropical Storm Tomas might be coming, but there was little they could do living in flimsy shelters to protect themselves from the elements.
“I didn’t know about (the storm). Maybe somebody came by to say something yesterday when I was out,” said Florence Ramond, a 22-year-old mother and food vendor who is living on the Petionville Club golf course in a refugee camp managed by actor Sean Penn’s relief organization.
Even knowing, Ms. Ramond said, she could do nothing to secure her home, a shack made of tarp, wood and a tin door. The roof blew off in an unnamed Sept. 24 storm that ripped through the capital, killing at least five people and destroying or damaging thousands of tents.
“They always go around and tell us to tie the tarps up, but I don’t have a rope,” she said.
The family lost their home in the earthquake, which killed Ms. Ramond’s niece. Her brother, Joel, is hospitalized with cholera in the Artibonite Valley - part of an epidemic that has killed more than 300 people and hospitalized more than 4,700.
Her infant son, Lovenson, has had bouts of diarrhoea recently that she said are caused by mud flowing into their shelter. His first birthday was Monday, which was also the first day of Haiti’s Voodoo festival of the dead, Fet Gede. Ms. Ramond said she doesn’t have money to celebrate either.
Those with more money have a better chance of being prepared. Leonide Paul said she had received news about the storm via an automated text message, and would go out and buy food, water and extra fuel to prepare.
Tomas would be the first major storm to strike Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake killed as many as 300,000 people and forced millions from their homes. It would also be the first tropical storm or hurricane to hit since 2008, when the storms Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike battered Haiti in the space of a month, killing nearly 800 people and wiping out 15 percent of the economy.
Piles of rubble and partially collapsed buildings still fill the capital from the quake. Reconstruction is grinding along without promised aid funds, including $1.15 billion promised by the United States in March.
There are shortages of 150,000 tarps as well as soap, hygiene kits, field tents, radios and oral rehydration salts for treating cholera, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Nigel Fisher said in a statement.
“We need emergency shelter. We need water and sanitation supplies. And we need as much of it as possible in place before Hurricane Tomas hits,” Mr. Fisher said.
Warehouses are being emptied of existing stocks of rope and tarp to help people in camps, said Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The U.S. Southern Command ordered an amphibious warfare ship, the USS Iwo Jima, to sail to Haiti and stand by to provide disaster relief in case Tomas does hit. The ship had to cut short a humanitarian mission in Suriname.
After weakening back to a tropical storm Sunday evening, Tomas was swirling westward in the middle of the Caribbean and wasn’t an immediate threat to land. But the storm is expected to regain power and veer toward Haiti late in the week.
“Right now they just need to stay tuned,” said John Cangialosi at the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami. “This is the stage to be aware.”
Late Monday, Tomas had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph) and was centered about 365 miles (590 kilometers) south-southeast of Haiti’s quake-ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince. It was moving west at 12 mph (19 kph).
As a hurricane Saturday, Tomas was blamed for at least 14 deaths in a cluster of islands in the eastern Caribbean, causing damage that St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves described as “the worst we have seen in living memory.”
Fields of bananas - a major export for St. Vincent - were flattened and roughly 300 homes were severely damaged. Hundreds of St. Vincent residents were treated in clinics for injuries, particularly in Sandy Bay on the island’s northeast coast.
In St. Lucia, Tomas inflicted severe damage on southern areas, particularly Vieux Fort, the island’s second-largest town and the home of the international airport. Two main bridges were left impassable with gaping holes, cutting the community off from the capital, Castries.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Stephenson King said 14 people were confirmed dead in St. Lucia, most in the hard-hit southern town of Soufriere. He did not disclose specifics of how the people died.
Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet told a St. Lucia radio station that Tomas triggered numerous landslides in Soufriere, which he said “looks like a war zone.”