Aid workers brace for worst from Irma

OTTAWA — Hurricane Irma could deal a crippling blow to Haiti while it’s still recovering from hurricane Matthew, which struck less than a year ago, says a Canadian aid worker in the impoverished country.

Preparations were underway Wednesday in the beleaguered Caribbean nation to deal with the potential aftermath of the latest storm.

Haiti is less able to handle the effects of a Category 5 storm than other countries in the region, said Laura Sewell of Ottawa, assistant country director in Haiti for CARE.

“The level of poverty in Haiti is not even comparable to some of the other countries,” said Sewell.

“Haiti has less developed tourist industries and agricultural export industries, so it means there’s sort of a chronic level of vulnerability.”

Aid agencies are preparing for the worst from Irma, which has already caused major flooding and destroyed buildings on several Caribbean islands.

The U.S. National Hurricane Centre said sustained wind speeds reached 295 kilometres per hour.

Haiti’s government issued a warning to residents along the north coast late Wednesday to seek shelter.

The World Food Programme said it had moved a convoy of contingency food supplies to the north of Haiti, where Irma was forecast to pass over or nearby on Thursday night and Friday morning.

CARE said it dispatched teams of aid workers to at least seven of Haiti’s 10 departments, or provinces, with stockpiles of emergency supplies including water purification tablets and tarps that can be used for shelter.

Oxfam Canada said it was also mobilizing its people in northern Haiti, as well as the Dominican Republic and Cuba, to quickly assess humanitarian needs once Irma has passed through the area.

Air Transat said it sent 10 planes to the Dominican Republic, which neighbours Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, to pick up passengers ahead of Irma.

Haiti is lacking in government-controlled infrastructure, including transportation services, making it difficult to evacuate people.

Other countries, including Cuba, have built evacuation centres where people can huddle in cement buildings during natural disasters.

“Here, we don’t have those kind of things,” Sewell said in an interview from Port-au-Prince.

“People are evacuated into little tiny schools with tin roofs and whatever building that is available that seems safe.”

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Americas, making it more vulnerable than its wealthier Caribbean neighbours to natural disasters.

Much of the country’s southern regions were damaged or destroyed by hurricane Matthew when it struck the island last October, killing more than 500 people.

“There’s been a lot of effort for the past year trying to respond to that emergency,” said Sewell.

“And now on top of that to have another (hurricane), it’s going to put a strain on the resources here.”

An earthquake in 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and caused extensive damage to Haiti’s infrastructure and economy.

Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press

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