Les Cayes, Haiti – Tropical Storm Grace battered Haiti on Tuesday, flooding beleaguered communities and hampering relief efforts as the country struggled to recover from an earthquake that killed more than 1,400 people and pulverized tens of thousands of homes.
Rescue workers were forced to temporarily suspend their efforts in some places as the rains swept in. By early Tuesday, Grace had strengthened from a tropical depression to a storm. Up to 10 inches of rain were expected to drench Haiti by the end of the day, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, with isolated areas seeing 15 inches.
In Les Cayes, a major city on Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, many desperate residents spent the night outdoors, huddling under tarps or other makeshift shelter, while others fled back to quake-damaged homes as the downpour intensified. Some tents collapsed, whipped by wind and rain.
Casimir Chery, 24, said no emergency shelter was available, so he slept on a street under a plastic sheet. “We hear that we can’t sleep in our homes, but what can we do?” he said. “We don’t have tents.”
Marie Michel Nicolas, 60, said she and 17 other family members tried to ride out the storm in a tent, but it was pummeled by the rain, driving them back into their unstable two-bedroom home. “This storm and the rain are just one disaster on top of another,” she said.
The 7.2 magnitude quake, and the ensuing tropical storm, intensified the pain of a country already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, rising gang violence and a political crisis capped by the assassination last month of President Jovenel Moïse. Many residents complained that aid was painfully slow to arrive.
Marie Bedar Samedi, 60, was among hundreds of people who spent the night in a giant tent in the Brefet neighborhood in Les Cayes. For the first time since Saturday’s earthquake, she said, someone brought food to the victims on Monday night. “But it was inedible, it was spoiled,” she said. “We had to throw it away.” She managed to salvage from food from her damaged home. “I don’t see how we will eat tomorrow,” she added.
U.S. officials said emergency operations had been suspended Monday night because of the storm, but were ramping up again Tuesday. Military helicopters were being dispatched to Haiti’s hard-hit southwestern peninsula to bypass damaged bridges and roads.
As of Tuesday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard had run 15 sorties, delivering 1,000 pounds of medical supplies and evacuating 41 patients from the earthquake zone. Meanwhile, a 65-member search and rescue team from Virginia’s Fairfax County Fire and Rescue travelled to the disaster area.
Asked about whether Haiti was receiving enough foreign assistance, Sarah Charles, the USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs assistant administrator, told reporters that “we are working with international partners to scale up assistance. Much more will be needed in the coming days and weeks.”
On Tuesday, the death toll stood at 1,419. U.S. officials said that thus far, assessments of the quake – which was stronger than a devastating 2010 temblor but was centered farther from the densely populated capital – suggested that it did not compare to that earlier disaster, in which more than 220,000 people died. Still, the toll was expected to climb, as authorities reached villages cut off by rubble and washed out-roads.
Roosevelt Louis, head of Fondation Sainte Rose d’Haïti, a charity in Les Cayes, said he had heard that a community north of the city, Maniche, was in critical condition. “But we can’t go there because of the rain,” which had made the roads impassable, he said.
The weather was not the only barrier. Violent gangs control roads in parts of the country and are a “key constraint” on aid groups’ ability to reach quake-shattered areas, the Haiti mission of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, tweeted Tuesday. “W/out sustained, & unhindered #humanitarianaccess, thousands of people in need of urgent assistance could die,” the office tweeted.
Since the quake, Haitian officials and U.N. representatives have negotiated permission for two relief convoys to travel from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to the southeastern peninsula, on a major road that gangs had blocked for months, according to OCHA.
As a light rain pelted Les Cayes on Tuesday, the ravaged city tried to recover. Traffic was snarled by flooding and cracks that snaked through the streets. But pharmacies and money-transfer businesses – a lifeline for the millions of Haitians with relatives abroad – reopened. Residents resumed their painstaking efforts to extract victims from pancaked buildings.
Chery said he had pulled four bodies from the wreckage of a three-story apartment building in the Brefet neighborhood a day earlier, but he had not given up hope of finding survivors.
“We still have at least one person alive in the rubble,” he said.
More than 84,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged by the quake, in a region that was already whipsawed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Tropical Storm Grace was moving near the northern coast of Jamaica as of Tuesday afternoon . The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that the system was likely to strengthen to a hurricane Wednesday as it approaches the Yucatán coast of Mexico.
Paulina Firozi in Washington contributed to this report.