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Hurricane Irma: Fears for impoverished Haiti as monster storm rips through Caribbean islands

By Anne Barker, Thursday September 7, 2017 - 19:26 EST

Aid agencies fear a humanitarian catastrophe in impoverished Haiti if Hurricane Irma hits the Caribbean island with full force as expected.

The US National Hurricane Centre predicted as it swept over Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Forecasts suggested the northern part of Haiti could receive up to 25 centimetres of rain, which along with ferocious winds, would destroy homes and buildings and devastate crops.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, with well over half the population estimated to be living below the poverty line.

The loss of homes and livelihoods would only add to the woes of a country still reeling from devastating

Australian aid worker Ascension Martinez — deputy country director at Save the Children in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince — said many Haitians were ill equipped to deal with the impact of a major hurricane.

"You have got an extremely large population of really vulnerable people," she said.

"They're people who are poor and vulnerable, who don't have anything to fall back on.

"If a crop is wiped out, if their house is flooded, if they do what most people do here, which is to be involved in small businesses, they will lose all of that. They've got nothing, and they'd have to start again."

Because of the country's impoverishment, Haitians are being urged to take extra care during the hurricane, not just to stockpile food or find shelter, but also to protect documents that prove their ownership of land or property.

"We're advising ... get food in, [but] get your essential documents into an airtight plastic bag," Ms Martinez said.

"If you lose your documentation, you lose your land title, your birth certificate, all of these things ... you've got nothing, and it will take a long time to get all that documentation back.

"Plus, people don't have the money. So get things into airtight bags, have them safely stowed so they'd be above any flood waters."

Haiti has been blighted by natural disasters, poor governance and violence in recent years, a turnaround from its days in the 18th century as one of the richest colonies in the French empire, with huge wealth from sugar cane and coffee plantations.

In less than 10 years, the county has dealt with two destructive hurricanes, a devastating earthquake in 2010 and a severe drought.

The latest predictions indicate Hurricane Irma will hit Haiti coast in the early hours of the morning, with the worst impact in the country's north and central plateau.

Humanitarian agencies hope the capital will be largely spared because it is surrounded by mountains.

However, deforestation could still leave much of the country prone to mudslides and flooding in heavy rain, and communities in low-lying areas are most vulnerable.

There are particular fears for children, given the risk of water-based diseases in times of flood and the poor state of school infrastructure.

Many schools and healthcare services have been disrupted by the worsening weather.

The United Nations has deployed peacekeepers — who are wrapping up their mission in Haiti — and some engineers to northern areas which are likely to be impacted.


© ABC 2017

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