The Other Hurricane Sandy: The Storm's Impact in Haiti

The country's government has proven surprisingly capable in the face of its latest natural disaster.

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Haitians walk through a street flooded by rains from Hurricane Sandy in Port-au-Prince (Swoan Parker/Reuters)

Hurricane Sandy was already a prolific killer by the time it ravaged the Jersey Shore, flooded New York's subway system, and turned Queens's scenic Breezy Point neighborhood into an ashen crater. 

Before making landfall in the United States, Sandy swept through the central Caribbean, directly hitting Jamaica and Cuba, and dropping more than 20 inches of rain on a country already well acquainted with the blunt force of nature: Haiti. The storm killed 52 Haitians, flooded much of the country's south, and displaced over 18,000 families. Up to 400,000 Haitians are still living in camps for those left homeless by the country's devastating 2010 earthquake. A subsequent cholera outbreak -- which most likely originated with U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the country -- killed up to 7,500 people. And while Haiti's 2011 presidential election might have demonstrated that the country's democratic development wouldn't be delayed on account of the earthquake, it was still a contentious affair that culminated in the elevation of Michele Martelly, a former pop singer with no prior political experience. There is never a "good" time for a killer storm to strike, but Sandy slammed into a highly vulnerable country that was struggling to emerge from a long spell of instability.

Major storms pose an especially daunting challenge for countries with a limited capacity for coping with them. Haiti certainly qualifies, although according to Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University, the country is in a better position to cope with a devastating weather event than it was in the chaotic year or so after the earthquake struck. Crucially, Martelly's government, which has received mixed reviews from Haitians, has pushed for people to move out of post-earthquake refugee camps. 

"The objective of the government over the last 18 months has been to try to get people out of tents," Gamarra said. "And in a sense, they've managed to avert a greater disaster by doing that. If the hurricane had struck when these people where still in those tents the damage would have been greater and a lot more people would have been exposed."

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, over a half-million people lived in tent cities around Port-au-Prince alone, where private donors and government aid provided refugees with a crucial minimum of food and physical security. According to Gamarra, Martelly's government has used cash payments, building materials, and 3,000 new government-constructed homes to incentivize Haitians to move into more permanent shelter. The low estimate for the number of earthquake refugees in Haiti is around 250,000 -- down from the 1.5 million displaced in January 2010.

As Sandy loomed, the Haitian government responded in a way that likely prevented the storm, which has already caused a month-long state of emergency, from amassing an even higher death toll: it warned Haitians that a major disaster was imminent, and urged them to seek higher ground. "Given [its] limited capacity to respond, I was struck by the fact that the government was extraordinarily proactive before it came on," said Gamarra. "Early warning was the best thing they did."

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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