How prepared is Haiti for Tropical Storm Chantal?

In January, a girl walks through a camp for people who were displaced three years ago by the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

As Chantal nears, a look at Haiti's National Contingency Plan for hurricanes this year shows more expected deaths and little planning.

One month before Tropical Storm Chantal began its potentially deadly course toward Haiti, the country's emergency officials issued a strategy for dealing with the 2013 hurricane season. But it reads more like a plea than a plan.

Expect more deaths, more evacuations and more disease this year than in recent seasons due to core issues of urban migration and deforestation, says the country's National Contingency Plan. To start with, an estimated 600,000 Haitians are at risk from storms this season, 100,000 more than last year’s forecast.

Related: Tropical Storm Chantal weakens to tropical wave

A key reason for this is that more and more people are moving from rural areas to cities, often squatting along ravines and other flood-prone areas. Ironically, the recent migration is due in large part to a yearlong drought that has ruined crops and farmers' livelihoods.

"The situation is getting worse due to environmental degradation," Haiti's Civil Protection Agency stated in its report issued last month.

World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian groups operating in Haiti, echoes that migratory danger. "This continuing situation is straining the limited response capacity of the government to provide services and meet critical needs," says Fred McCray, the group’s emergency program officer.

Propped up by billions of dollars in foreign aid since the 2010 earthquake that killed 220,000 people, Haiti has seen economic growth in construction and food and clothing industries, as well as a steady drop in the number of people left homeless — from 1.5 million to about 320,000 today, the Civil Protection Agency reported.

But that aid hasn't made an impact on Haiti's vulnerability to storms.

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"With so many desperate needs after the earthquake, the first priorities were food, water, shelter and health care," says McCray. "Today, as many of those urgent priorities have lessened, some improvements in building standards are being seen.

"However, this is on a limited scale and must be accompanied by large-scale improvements in water and sanitation infrastructure to mitigate against the spread of communicable diseases, particularly during emergencies like approaching Tropical Storm Chantal," he says.

In the case of Chantal, Haiti has not ordered evacuations, but its weather service declared a "Red Alert" Tuesday and urged people in vulnerable areas to leave. However, The Associated Press reported from Port-au-Prince Wednesday morning that few in the capital were heeding the warning.

Other preparations include the pre-deployment of food and medicine in vulnerable areas, but the Civil Protection Agency noted in its report that Haiti has enough food kits for only 300,000 people.

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With the help of the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization, Haiti is slowly improving its weather service to better warn residents of storm tracks. Its offices were destroyed by the 2010 quake, and the service is now "operating out of two shipping containers near the airport" in Port-au-Prince, says WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis. Haiti is also getting technical weather support from a base on the nearby island of Martinique.

Besides the migratory problems, Haiti has also long suffered from erosion and flash flooding caused by deforestation. As forests are cleared for firewood and farms, any rain is quickly washed downhill instead of being absorbed into the soil where it falls. Haiti's drought has been compounding the effect, with the dry, hard soil refusing to soak up any rain.

In mid-June, heavy rain triggered the latest flash floods, which killed at least six people and affected nearly 7,000 families.

Last year’s hurricane season saw even more destruction than planners had forecast. In November, Hurricane Sandy killed 60 people and significantly damaged roads, schools and hospitals. Some 1.8 million Haitians were affected — nearly four times what planners had estimated for the entire season — and more than 18,000 homes were destroyed or damaged.


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