Haitians’ grim choice: quake zone or flood zone

GONAIVES, Haiti – For a generation, people have fled the floods that routinely wash across Gonaives for the relative safety of Port-au-Prince. Now, they’re’fleeing back.

By busload and car, aboard smashed pickup trucks and dirty motorcycles, an estimated’50,000 to 100,000 people have poured out of the earthquake-devastated capital and into a region inundated by flood waters and mudslides not once but twice in the last six years. And nobody knows how long they’ll stay.

Maire Delphin Alceus’s daughter, Katya, was among the thousands killed in Gonaives and the surrounding Artibonite area by the floods of 2004’s Tropical Storm Jeanne. The family left to seek better fortune and schools in the’capital, returning for visits – including one in 2008 that coincided with more floods, from Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike.

Then, in last week’s killer quake, Alceus’s 26-year-old son, Woodley Saint-Pierre, was crushed when their rented house in’downtown Port-au-Prince collapsed. Her half-sister also’perished, and with her the family’s livelihood, since she had kept them going by buying clothes and perfume in Miami for resale’in Haiti.

So it was back to Gonaives.

‘Living in Port-au-Prince is a problem. Going to Gonaives is another problem. Everywhere you go is a problem. If I could, I would have left this country and been somewhere else by now. But I have no way to do that,’Alceus said.

Gonaives, a city of some’300,000 people on the coast’60 miles northwest of’Port-au-Prince, was completely cut’off in both the 2004 and’2008 floods, separated from the’rest of Haiti by a lake – the’flooded plain of Savanne Desole – that swallowed part of the main’north-south road. It took days to ship in aid. And it is still a’disaster area 1’frac12; years after the last floods.

A replacement road was completed in late December, just ahead of a Jan. 1 address President Rene Preval delivered in Gonaives, cradle of Haiti’s 1804 independence from France, result of the only successful slave’rebellion in modern history.

But the new road is much lower than the high-water mark left by the last storms, and would disappear again if the floods returned.

The old Alceus family home, a two-story structure with a peach-colored facade in the poor’neighborhood of Raboteau, now houses eight people. It sits amid a grid of wide unpaved streets and stately balconies where armed gangs battled police, U.S. soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers and each other before and after the 2004 ouster’of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.