La Gonâve: Haiti’s forgotten island

October 13, 2016
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Concern Worldwide

The people of La Gonâve, an island near Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, are no strangers to hardship. They’ve long struggled with poverty, poor infrastructure, and access to basic services. Hurricane Matthew only made things worse.

When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti on October 4th, it devastated the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation, destroying homes, livelihoods and infrastructure. It is estimated that nearly 1.5 million people — more than 10% of the country — are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Women from La Gonâve Island hand wash their children's clothes after Hurricane Matthew

Families across La Gonâve — an island not far from Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince — are trying to put their lives back together after Hurricance Matthew brought heavy rains and flooding. Photo: Concern Worldwide

Over two million Haitians were affected by the hurricane, with the bulk of the damage concentrated on the southern and northern peninsulas. While the spotlight remains fixed on these areas, other hard hit communities are struggling on their own.

The road less traveled

We arrived at the remote fishing village of Latanye by boat, traveling over an hour along the shore from Anse à Galets the island of La Gonâve. Despite being just off the coast of Port-au-Prince, the people of this island remain largely forgotten.

La Gonâve has long struggled with poverty, poor infrastructure, and access to basic services such as clean water, electricity, and transportation. When Hurricane Matthew hit, it damaged an estimated 40-50% of the island’s infrastructure, and swept away precious resources.

 Almost everywhere you look a home is collapsed, or a roof was blown away.

Walking through Latanye, the evidence of the storm is everywhere. Nearly 25% of the community’s 400 homes have been partially or completely destroyed. Large standing pools of dirty water are present throughout the area, and almost everywhere you look a home is collapsed or a roof blown away.

A steady struggle

Concern has worked with the communities that dot La Gonâve’s shores for 20 years. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy affected hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti, flooding communities and damaging infrastructure across the country. Concern responded by targeting the most vulnerable members of the in Latanye community. In 2013, working hand-in-hand with the community, we built 11 sturdy, storm-resistant shelters on high ground. The homes are modest, but during the hurricane — while surrounding homes collapsed — these shelters remained fully intact.

The Cassy family sits in front of their home built by Concern in 2013. Mother Eveline lives here with her six children, Ismael, Chalens, Whitney Joseph, Bilgarens, Keline, and Solanda. When Hurricane MAtthew came, she lost her livestock, but experienced no damage to the house- and though the water levels rose, it never entered her home. Her daughter, Mirlande Cassy fled to her mother’s house with her daughter Ket Charine after her house collapsed. Now, Eveline worries about taking care of all of her children and their needs. Photo: Kristin Myers

The Cassy family sits in front of their home built by Concern in 2013. Eveline lives here with her six children. When Hurricane Matthew came, she lost her livestock, but experienced no water damage, despite flooding in the area. Photo: Kristin Myers

Eveline Cassy, 48, lives in one of these shelters with her six children, ranging in age from six to 23. Though the area was completely flooded with water, the rain never entered her house — except where it blew in through the vents in the roof. While the Category 4 hurricane washed away much of Eveline’s livestock, the family made it through the storm unscathed. Closer to the water, her daughter Mirlande did not fare as well.

 The rainwater — at some points waist deep — swept away more than just homes.

When the storm destroyed Mirlande Cassy’s house, she fled with her daughter Ket Chaline to her mother’s house. She is still there with her siblings.

Unfortunately, many other families in Latanye weren’t as lucky. The rainwater — at some points waist deep — swept away more than just homes. It took with it the livelihoods and resources of the island’s poorest.

Nowhere to turn

Standing next to the remains of his home, Carto François describes the night that his family fled their home. “We evacuated the house during the hurricane,” says Carto. “There was a lot of wind and rain. Everyone was afraid.”

Rubble is all that's left of the François family home

All that remains of the François family home. The family left during the hurricane, and shortly afterward the home collapsed due to the wind and the rain. Photo: Kristin Myers

Shortly after they left, their house collapsed, and they lost all of their possessions, including important documents and clothing. They went to a friend’s home, where they are still staying, but Carto — who usually works as a carpenter but is out of work since the hurricane — is worried about his family.

Carto says that while he took out a line of credit, he no longer has no money to support his wife Enite and their four small children. “We have no money to buy food, to buy clothes — to take care of the basic necessities.”

It’s a story that we hear over and over again as we talk to the people of La Gonâve. Many don’t know how they will rebuild their homes and lives with no money and no work.

Carto tells me that he’s worried about the future. While he’s grateful to live with friends, he says that the home isn’t very big or well protected. “I’m very worried for my family,” he says. “I don’t know how I’m going to take care of them and their needs.”

Our plan of action

Concern Worldwide has prepositioned stocks for 800 families on the island of La Gonâve and is preparing to distribute essential items to residents devastated by Hurricane Matthew. On October 11th, we reached 300 families in the village of Grand Vide, not far from Latanye.

The Concern Worldwide warehouse in La Gonave. Concern Worldwide provided NFI’s for families in need on La Gonave after Hurricane Matthew. Pictured: Gracia Jeanno and Ernso Romulus sort tarps for distribution. Photo: Kristin Myers

Gracia Jeanno and Ernso Romulus sort tarps for distribution at the Concern Worldwide warehouse in La Gonâve. Concern Worldwide provided NFIs for families in need on La Gonâve after Hurricane Matthew. Photo: Kristin Myers

Throughout the week we’ve been ramping up our relief efforts with partner organizations and the Haitian government. Building on a comprehensive joint assessment, we’ve determined which communities have the most urgent needs, and the best ways to respond. Taking measures to prevent the spread of disease will be a major focus for us, as more than 10,000 people have died from waterborne cholera since the 2010 earthquake.

Our team of 130 humanitarians is on the ground, and working to reach as many families as possible. Help us continue the distribution of life-saving resources.