As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeastern U.S. on Monday evening, the 50 million Americans in its path at least knew it wouldn’t wreak the kind of devastation that storms like these leave in Haiti. Just days before Sandy’s eastern edge dumped a biblical deluge of driving rain over southern Haiti last week, President Michel Martelly and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated a major new industrial park on the nation’s northern coast. Sandy’s aftermath — including 52 confirmed dead, 20 more missing and scores of new cholera cases — is yet another grave reminder of just how badly the western hemisphere’s poorest country needs economic development, if only so it can finally have the kind of homes, roads, bridges and drainage systems that won’t be swept away like so much Caribbean beach sand every time a cyclone passes through.
The full extent of Sandy’s damage to Haiti was slow to emerge. But Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency now reports that the flooding — which is almost always epic in Haiti, not just because of poor infrastructure but because decades of deforestation for fuel have left few natural barriers to the raging waters — has left some 18,000 families homeless. “This is a disaster of major proportions,” Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the Associated Press. “The whole south is under water.”
Even before Sandy, some 370,000 Haitians were still without decent shelter, dwelling in squalid tent camps and other makeshift settlements, after southern Haiti and the capital, Port-au-Prince, were wrecked by the massive 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. Now, says Pierre-Evens Alexis, mayor of the town of Meniche in Haiti’s South department, a nearby river that burst its banks during Sandy has utterly isolated his community. “There’s no water, no food, and people have lost their homes,” Alexis told TIME by phone, adding that Meniche’s important coffee crops are “completely destroyed.”
Massive crop losses, blocked roads — including an important border crossing into the Dominican Republic — are being reported all over southern Haiti after more than 20 in. (50 cm) of rain pounded the region for more than three days. Haiti’s central and northern regions got badly pelted as well. What’s worse, the country was still recovering from earlier cyclones like August’s Hurricane Isaac. Henry Desjardins, a farmer in Tiburon, on Haiti’s lower southwest tip, says the main staples of the local diet have been drenched or wiped out. “We were very badly hit,” says Desjardins. “Eighty percent of our crops were destroyed, especially our corn, beans and bananas.” He says at least two people have died in the area, with many stranded in emergency shelters, their homes washed out to sea.
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Just as frightening is the potential for a spike in cholera cases. Haiti has been battling cholera since it was taken into the country in late 2010, most likely, say scientists, by foreign U.N. peacekeeping forces, and the unsanitary conditions that accompany chronic flooding like Sandy’s encourage new outbreaks. In and around Meniche alone, Alexis estimates 78 new cases so far. “Eight people have already died” from cholera since Sandy hit, he says. “There was no way for people to get out to get treatment.” The independent International Organization for Migration reported that while it’s too early to determine the extent of cholera’s spread in Sandy’s wake, a surge in new cases — 117 reported so far, 99 of them in the earthquake-survivor camps — has been confirmed in Port-au-Prince.
The Haitian government and international aid organizations are making aerial and land assessments of damage and distributing emergency food rations, aquatabs to purify water and other urgent items. Supplies, however, haven’t been replenished since Isaac — which devastated many of the same communities battered last week by Sandy, which also killed 11 people in eastern Cuba and two in Jamaica. Haiti’s Grise River, for example, burst its banks once more in the capital’s impoverished rural outskirts. “Most of the [nearby] houses were flooded again,” says France Hurtubise, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Haiti. “The same families who had their homes destroyed two months ago [are] back under water.”