UN rushing aid to Caribbean nations hit hard by severe weather

John Holmes

5 September 2008 – The United Nations is providing assistance to a number of countries in the Caribbean that have been badly affected by recent severe weather, particularly Haiti which has been the worst hit, the world body's top humanitarian official said today.

“We are faced with a combination, once again, of severe natural disasters in a number of places which is stretching our resources,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters in New York today.

A series of tropical storms and hurricanes have been hitting, and are continuing to hit, parts of the Caribbean. The Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the United States itself have all been badly affected, said Mr. Holmes, who is also UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Up to 600,000 people may need assistance in Haiti, which has been struck badly by three storms in three weeks – Faye, Gustav and Hanna, Mr. Holmes stated, adding that the damage caused by the storms has made it difficult to get around and assess the extent of the situation.

“But it's clear that the death toll is significant,” he said, noting that could be between 100 and 200 people. Nine of the 10 districts in Haiti have been seriously affected.

The UN estimates there are some 250,000 people badly affected in the city of Gonaïves alone, with around 70,000 people still in waiting for help in shelters.

UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), have been responding and strengthening their presence on the ground.

In addition, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has deployed a UN disaster and coordination team (UNDAC) to the country on 3 September.

“This is very much the beginning of the operation and we're still trying to establish how bad it is and build up our capacity,” said Mr. Holmes, adding the UN will announce a flash appeal for Haiti, possibly as early as tomorrow. In addition, he was ready to assist with assistance from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

Mr. Holmes added that the UN is using its peacekeeping force in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH, in the aid efforts, including for evacuation and for the distribution of relief items.

“It was really, really difficult even for our troops to assist the population due to the level of the water,” MINUSTAH spokesperson Sophie Boutaud de la Combe told the UN News Centre.

“The situation in Gonaïves is really critical and everyone is doing the best they can to support the national authorities,” she added.

So far, MINUSTAH troops have helped to evacuate more than 500 people to emergency shelters, Ms. Boutaud de la Combe said. In addition, hundreds of people have been treated by the Mission's doctors and its helicopters have been transporting food and other emergency relief supplies from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to Gonaïves.

On the way back, the same helicopters have been transporting people who require urgent medical attention to the capital because the hospital in Gonaïves is not able to treat them, she added.

Cuba has also been badly affected, particularly by Hurricane Gustav, possibly the worst storm to hit the island nation in 50 years, according to the Red Cross. “We're trying to establish the exact extent of the damage and a joint assessment will be undertaken by the Government and the United Nations today,” stated Mr. Holmes.

“Cuban preparations have, as in the past, functioned well in the sense that they managed avoid any casualties, as far as we know. But obviously the damage is very significant,” he added.

Elsewhere, he said, the damage is significant but a bit less severe. Jamaica had a lot of flooding following Hurricane Gustav, and the UN has already allocated a cash grant of $30,000 and is in touch with the Government about further needs.

There has been some damage in the Dominican Republic, but the biggest concern there is the potential for landslides and flooding if another storm hits the already saturated areas. “We are monitoring the situation there but the Government does not seem to need any special support.” The same is true, he added, of the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.


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