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Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak Could Worsen After Tropical Storm

November 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez talks to a NPR's Jason Beaubien in Port-au-Prince about concerns that rainwater could further the spread of cholera in Haiti.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, Ray Suarez talked to NPR’s Jason Beaubien in Port-au-Prince.

RAY SUAREZ: Jason, welcome. The storm is over the open ocean, heading north-northwest toward Haiti. What is the forecasters’ best guess now on when it’s going to hit the country and particularly Port-au-Prince?

JASON BEAUBIEN, NPR: It’s expected to pass right off of the western coast of Haiti tonight, overnight.

The good thing is that it’s not taking a direct hit at Haiti. If that had actually happened, this place would really be in trouble. It looks like it’s going to pass offshore. The very southern tip of Haiti might get struck directly by this storm, but it looks like the brunt of the country is not going to get a full hurricane blow from Tomas.

RAY SUAREZ: Jason, tell us more about the attempts to get people out of the tent camps and into more storm-resistant shelter.

JASON BEAUBIEN: There have been attempts at some of the organized camps, some of the camps where there are just rows and rows of tents. There have been some attempts there.

They actually didn’t go that well. If you look at, like, the places behind me, people in those places were just going about their ordinary business today, basically having given up, saying they have nowhere to go. And they weren’t going to make any attempt to really move in with friends and family, as the government has asked them to do, because they say, if they had friends and family that they could be living with, they would already be living with them.

RAY SUAREZ: Government representatives, we’re told, had been pleading with residents to leave, but is there transportation out of Port-au-Prince, if you do want to get out?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Some people were taking some of the ordinary buses, but there was no effort to move mass numbers of people out of Port-au-Prince.

At Korai (ph), one of the camps to the north, they were trying to move 1,800 people out of an entire population of 6,500 people. They were trying to move 1,800 of them in U.N. trucks today out. And they were going to move them into some other government buildings. There was a lot of chaos. There were even some — they called them riots amongst people who believed that they were being evicted. It wasn’t going very smoothly.

RAY SUAREZ: You say the island may only receive a glancing blow. But even if just five to 10 inches of rain and some high winds come, what will it do to a neighborhood like the one just behind you?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Even though this is not going to be the full brunt of a hurricane, this could be absolutely devastating. High winds could just rip those tents to shreds.

I was talking to some people who were in a camp that the entire camp collapsed back in September during just an ordinary storm. They were saying that high winds came through. All the tents started falling over. They were all tied together. And, pretty soon, the whole thing had collapsed.

So, if high winds strike here, it really could knock down camps like the one behind me. Also, when it rains really hard here, water just floods along the ground and goes underneath all of those structures that you’re seeing behind me, these — these basically like shacks made out of tarps and some sticks. They just get completely flooded.

And people describe that they have to stand up all night, because they’re — they have got several inches of water underneath their feet.

RAY SUAREZ: Before Tomas got organized as a tropical storm, Haiti was last in the news because of an outbreak of cholera. How does heavy rains in a place like Port-au-Prince complicate the job of fighting back cholera?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Well, it basically distracts the entire international community, which has been working on this cholera outbreak, and now they have had to scramble to try to pre-position supplies in case this storm is as devastating as some people think it may be.

It also — if they have got flooding into this river that some people are saying is the possible source of the cholera, that could end up spreading that even further around the country. So, it definitely complicates this cholera outbreak, which has already killed more than 400 people, sickened thousands.

So, yes, it’s adding to the difficulty with the cholera situation.

RAY SUAREZ: There are still standing solid structures in the Haitian capital. Has there been any attempt to throw open the doors, to get as many people inside them as possible to ride this out?

JASON BEAUBIEN: It’s really striking today how little was going on. Most people were going about their ordinary business. You didn’t see places that said: “Shelter. Come in.”

There was no real large-scale organized effort to get people into even some of buildings that are still standing. There’s actually a concern that, if people went into some of these buildings, they may never leave. So, there was sort of a hesitancy to open up some buildings to people.

But, really, there has not been a large-scale effort to move people out of the camps, like the one you see behind me, into some more solid shelter.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Jason Beaubien joining us from Port-au-Prince. Thanks a lot, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: You’re welcome, Ray.