Haiti's Tragic Hurricane History
By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.
In many ways, the hurricane season of 2008 was the cruelest ever experienced in Haiti. Four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Particularly hard-hit was Gonaives, the fourth largest city. According to reliefweb.org, the rains from 2008's four storms killed 793, left 310 missing, injured 593, destroyed 22,702 homes, and damaged another 84,625. About 800,000 people were affected--8% of Haiti's total population. The flood wiped out 70% of Haiti's crops, resulting in dozens of deaths of children due to malnutrition in the months following the storms. Damage was estimated at over $1 billion, the costliest natural disaster in Haitian history. The damage amounted to over 5% of the country's $17 billion GDP, a staggering blow for a nation so poor.
Why does Haiti suffer a seemingly disproportionate number of flooding disasters? The answer in that in large part, these are not natural disasters--they are human-caused disasters. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. With oil too expensive for the impoverished nation, charcoal from burnt trees has provided 85% or more of the energy in Haiti for decades. As a result, Haiti's 8 million poor have relentlessly hunted and chopped down huge amounts of forest, leaving denuded mountain slopes that rainwater washes down unimpeded. Back in 1980, Haiti still had 25% of its forests, allowing the nation to withstand heavy rain events like 1979's Category 3 Hurricane David without loss of life. But as of 2004, only 1.4% of Haiti's forests remained. Jeanne and Gordon were not even hurricanes--merely strong tropical storms--when they stuck Haiti, but the almost total lack of tree cover contributed to the devastating floods that killed thousands. And it doesn't even take a tropical storm to devastate Haiti--in May of 2004, three days of heavy rains from a tropical disturbance dumped more than 18 inches of rain in the mountains, triggering floods that killed over 2600 people.
If you're looking for a promising way to make a charitable donation to help Haitian flood victims, considering sending a check to the Lambi Fund of Haiti, which is very active in promoting reforestation efforts, use of alternative fuels, and infrastructure improvements at a grass-roots level to help avert future flood disasters.