Osa Jonmarits and his family were awakened in the middle of the night as water rushed into their mud and stone house on the mountains of La Chapelle, Haiti, and covered them in their beds.
The flash flooding came from Hurricane Irma, a category 5 hurricane that passed to the north of Haiti on Sept. 7. It caused flash floods and heavy winds from the country’s northern shores to its deep interior, where La Chapelle is located.
Placing their two smallest children on their shoulders, Jonmarits and his wife waded with their other two children through floodwaters waist-deep in places, as they walked uphill for several hours in pouring rain to get to a safer location.
Their story is not unique. La Chapelle is located in the Artibonite Department, which had one of the highest concentrations of rainfall in the country within a very short time, said Rebecca Shetler Fast, a Mennonite Central Committee representative in Haiti. The rainfall led to devastating flash floods because of the Artibonite’s mountainous topography and narrow ravines.
People living in La Chapelle, which is accessible only by foot, reported water rose to waist height in their homes in less than a minute.
“These strong and churning flood waters meant that many families put children on rafters, on roofs, climbed trees or simply had to stand with children on their shoulders outside in the rain through the night until the waters began to recede in the morning,” Fast said.
The Jonmarits family returned to their home the next day to find walls crumbling, livestock dead and their garden and fruit trees swept away. Most of their belongings had been destroyed or washed away, including school materials and uniforms for their children — a huge cost to the family and a necessity for attendance.
Mennonite Central Committee is asking for contributions to respond to these needs in Haiti as well as in Cuba, which suffered an even more direct hit from Irma on Sept. 8.
MCC area director Bonnie Klassen has been in Cuba with leaders of the Brethren in Christ Church since the hurricane hit. They are assessing the damage and planning a response.
“The destruction is massive on the island in general,” she wrote in an email during a temporary period when she had electricity. “An enormous number of houses are damaged. A lot of roads are blocked. It has been many decades since Cuba has seen such massive destruction in a hurricane.”
Klassen, who is from Kitchener, Ont., but resides in Bogota, Colombia, said Cuban people she has met are demonstrating a lot of solidarity.
“For example, one pastor couple, Joel Balbusano Perez and Daily Perez, live in . . . a small bedroom behind the church, literally a room with space for a double bed and three chairs, and then they have a tiny kitchen. That’s it. No bathroom,” she reported.
“And yet they have taken in three other women from their community who lost everything. One woman with facial paralysis due to stress, another with special needs and the third woman over 80 years old. [I’m] not sure where they are all sleeping, but this is their short-term solution.”
In Haiti, less than 48 hours after Hurricane Irma passed, MCC staff conducted its first distribution of comforters, water purification tablets and relief kits that contain hygiene supplies for a family of four. The Jonmarits family was among 90 other families who received supplies MCC had prepositioned in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
MCC also is preparing for a food security response for families in and around La Chapelle, including distribution of food assistance and seeds, so people can replant gardens.
The initial response was organized after an assessment team, led by Paul Shetler Fast, also an MCC representative in Haiti, reached La Chapelle on Sept. 8 to assess the damage. Paul and Rebecca Shetler Fast most recently lived in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Without going to these communities in person, wading through those rivers and talking to people face to face, you wouldn’t hear their stories and we wouldn’t be able to help,” he said.
To contribute to MCC’s disaster response in Cuba and Haiti, donate online. Contributions can also be made at 888-563-4676 or by mail to MCC, 21 S. 12th St., PO Box 500, Akron, PA 17501. To support the response to Hurricane Irma in the U.S., please contact Mennonite Disaster Service.