Madelaine Edward, who is 29 and already knows the depths of grief, stepped barefoot on the concrete rubble that was her home. Her toenails are painted pink and layered in white — the dust of her pulverized walls. Nothing stands here except her, her husband, a washing machine and three plastic chairs. There’s a solitary sandal and a mutilated cell phone cover. And in the southeast corner, buried invisibly beneath the pile, the body of their 4-year-old son, Johnny.
“This was the room, and we were in there,” she said.
It was the middle of the night on Oct. 3 when Hurricane Matthew arrived. To go outside into the blackness and stinging rain was to play roulette with swarming shrapnel: parts of trees and homes. The metal roof roared like the apocalypse. Then the roof was gone in a dramatic gust, and torrents dropped on their heads. Edwards and Jean Josué Banatte, her 39-year-old husband, huddled with their four children.
Then the walls, unsturdy constructions of stone and weak cement, came down on top of them. Johnny died from the impact.
“We just made a hole and buried the child,” Edward said. “There was nothing else we could do.”
The village of Banatte sits in the wrinkle of a mountain in southwestern Haiti, which suffered the greatest devastation of Hurricane Matthew. The rain and winds up to 140 mph tortured the Tiburon Peninsula for nearly 24 hours. Roads and a vital bridge connecting the region to the capital washed away. Virtually every rural home was damaged, and 175,500 people became homeless. Subsistence farms washed away, and 806,000 people still require urgent food donations, according to the United Nations. Later, cholera broke out, reprising a legacy of Haiti’s worst disaster since slavery, the 2010 earthquake. Starving residents looted aid trucks, and high school students marched in the streets to protest the use of their schools as emergency shelters. In Les Cayes, the region’s largest port city, police shot and killed a teenage boy during a rowdy aid distribution along the wharf.
Whatever lessons Haiti learned from the earthquake seemed not to have sunk in. The government’s deficient and politicized response stoked further resentment from Haitians accustomed to being ignored by Port-au-Prince and may have contributed to the Nov. 20 election victory of a political outsider, a wealthy fruit distributor nicknamed Banana Man. In a reflection of the widespread cynicism, voter turnout was 21 percent.
Even nongovernmental organizations, the private entities that provide most of Haiti’s social services, seemed unable to overcome reputations for waste and scandal. Many ignored a government effort to centralize triage and distribution and simply delivered aid where they knew it was needed, sometimes based on tips from friends or a phone call from a mayor. Even if they had coordinated better, aid groups reported funding shortages in the tens of millions of dollars. Hurricane Matthew coincided with the invasion of Mosul, Iraq, and the final weeks of the U.S. presidential campaign, both redirecting donations and attention.
In villages I visited around Les Cayes, residents frequently told me I was the first person to check on them. “Thank you for coming so far out of the way,” said an elderly woman in the community of Trou Taback, about 30 minutes from the nearest paved road. “I can’t go to where the aid is going and fight. Thank you for coming here.” All I’d done was walk through.
In La Borde, I met Nereh Jean Ossiny, who has been an administrative councillor for his northern Les Cayes district for 10 years. He said that before the hurricane his people were poor but functioning. Women sold merchandise and men farmed. After Matthew, thousands of people in his community lost their meager livelihoods. The government prioritized harder-hit regions to the west, he said, but while his communities were surviving on a meal of rice per day.
“All the food that was sent by other countries didn’t reach us because we Haitians do not know how to share or to administrate,” he said bitterly. Under pressure from his constituents and rebuffed by the mayor of Les Cayes and NGOs, he traveled to the city and held a press conference. This, too, seemed to have little effect.
He told me about the village of Banatte, where Edward’s son and two others were killed when their houses collapsed, and about a community called Marchand where some villagers have been forced to sleep in a cave. Ossiny took me to meet them the next day. After speaking with Edward, we traveled farther up the mountain to Marchand. It took nearly an hour by motorbike, including 30 minutes of uphill hiking. Marchand is atop a mountain ridge, where 14 of the villagers with damaged homes spend rainy nights in a rocky crevice on beds of cardboard. A man named Isnol Jeudi, 53, said all he’d eaten that day was a potato. My interpreter was so distraught about them he asked if we could report Marchand’s location to the World Food Program. “They need help,” he said.
But among the dozens of people I spoke with in four remote villages, not one asked directly for food. They would have preferred metal, wood and nails. Hunger is their constant companion; exposure is not. And once housed, they only wanted seeds and machinery. I didn’t see famine conditions. What I saw were ambitious communities without the resources to get started.
“Even if the situation is complicated, we don’t want to be a charity case,” Ossiny said. “We can work. We just need some seeds, to create tree nurseries, and with the help of agronomists and some technicians to reforest.”
Because if Haitians are anything, they are self-sufficient. That’s by necessity.
“I have been pushing the farmers to start planting without expecting anything from the government,” Georges Eric, an agronomist in La Borde, told me. “They will never come to help you.”