Emergency team assess situation on La Gonave post-earthquake

February 2, 2010
Photo by Brenda Fitzsimons

On La Gonave, tiny island of farmland and mountains off the coast of Port-au-Prince, there were no fatalities from the devastating 2010 earthquake. The miraculous island was spared the punishing damage of mainland Haiti, but is now finding itself with survivors flowing in from Port-au-Prince and a shaky infrastructure barely supporting it’s own residents. Concern is setting up in La Gonave to reinforce the island with roads, supply distributions, and steady access to clean and safe water.

The road from Port-au-Prince to Cariesse, where ferry boats depart mainland Haiti for the island of La Gonave is smooth and uncongested, bracketed by the sea to the east, and farmland and the dramatic Matheux mountains to the west.

In Haiti the earthquake is everywhere. This is why, on one recent morning, Concern sent an assessment mission to La Gonave.

The island is one of the poorest and most vulnerable places in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and a key program area for Concern. Deforestation, isolation, poor infrastructure—especially roads—and recurrent hurricanes have conspired to make the life there a struggle.

Our program on La Gonave is comprehensive, working with and through the community to construct new clean water resources, distribute seeds and tools, build schools, and improve roads using a backhoe that was delivered in August. Though it is home to 80,000 people, 60 km long and 25 km wide, La Gonave does not have a single kilometer of paved road.

In Haiti the earthquake is everywhere. This is why, on one recent morning, Concern sent an assessment mission to La Gonave.

Miraculously, when the earthquake struck, there were no deaths on the island, but 107 Gonaviens, who were in Port-au-Prince at the time, perished. Thousands lost friends and members of their families, 4,700 homes were damaged and 1,300 destroyed.  Concern’s team on the island, most of who live in Port-au-Prince scrambled to reach their loved ones.

On our way to the assessment, I sat next to Program Manager Hugues Nevelus on the motorboat.  When the earthquake struck, he was escorting a team of engineers around the island.  They felt nothing at the time, but soon his cell phone began to ring with frantic calls from the capital confirming the unimaginable.

He immediately thought of his wife and two boys, aged seven and one. The boys, he soon found out were fine, with relatives, but as the hours passed, nothing from his wife. She was working on the seventh floor of a university building when it collapsed.  Hundreds of students on the lower floors clearly couldn’t have survived but friends told Hugues there was hope for his wife because she was on an upper floor. Still he was powerless—trapped on La Gonave, with few boats coming in or out in the first 48 hours.

Though it is home to 80,000 people, 60 km long and 25 km wide, La Gonave does not have a single kilometer of paved road.

The first sleepless night passed—no news. Then the second: still nothing.  On Thursday night he got a call from his relatives. His wife showed up at their front door.  She had worked her way out of the rubble and just walked home covered in dust. This was 48 hours after the quake. Hugues got on a boat Friday morning to find his family safe and sound, but his apartment was destroyed. The next day they boarded a bus for Cap-Haitien in the north, their hometown.

This would be Hugues’ first time back to LaGonave, and he was looking and smelling remarkable fresh for a guy who’d spent the last two nights sleeping in a car.This has been a recurring source of amazement for me. Despite losing almost everything, homes and family members, most of the staff were showing up for work within the first week. And this is perhaps relatively trivial but I think also deeply symbolic—they were all arriving sharply dressed, many having spent the night under the stars or in a tent, sometimes commuting great distances.

And it’s not just our staff. Every morning when we walk to the office at around 6:30 am, we inevitably pass dozens of women but more often men, dressed in what we might call ‘business casual’, manila envelopes or portfolios under their arms, walking intently downtown or waiting for a tap-tap. If there are jobs to be had, they are going to find them. This is one untold story.  Yes there are incalculable victims here, but donors and television audiences and recovery planners should be told: the people of Haiti want to go to work, now.

Me? I’m showing up all wrinkled with two days’ growth despite staying in a hotel five minutes from the office.  I could never be a Haitian.