Disasters & Accidents

Haiti’s “Paris of the Antilles” in peril

Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Dec 22 (EFE).- Once known as the “Paris of the Antilles” and a popular tourist destination, this city on Haiti’s northern coast finds itself at the mercy of fate after years of neglect by an ineffectual central government.

Municipal authorities in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second city by population, struggle to respond to disasters, whether natural phenomena such as earthquakes and landslides or emergencies due to human action.

The lack of resources was brought into stark relief in the wee hours of Dec. 14, when a fuel tanker truck flipped over while rounding a corner in the center of Cap-Haitien, resulting in a conflagration that claimed at least 90 lives.

Around 100 residents tried to help themselves to the fuel in the overturned tanker, which had ended up in a ditch where someone was burning trash, witnesses told the National Network for Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH).

Besides those killed at the scene, the flames from the explosion and massive blaze that followed the contact between the spilled fuel and the trash fire reached people inside nearby homes.

The residents’ willingness to take the risk of approaching the truck is easier to understand in light of the more than 200 percent hike in prices of diesel and kerosene – used by many to light their homes – that took effect on Dec. 10.

And the price increases came in the wake of a months-long fuel shortage in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.

Without any semblance of organized trash collection, garbage accumulates on the streets, in waterways and even on the coast near the beaches now largely empty of tourists.

The crash also highlighted the problems plaguing Cap-Haitien’s first responders, especially the tiny “volunteer” fire department.

“For the last five years we have been working without receiving and salary,” fire chief Mackenson Azemar says. “We have no equipment. We only have one vehicle, which has been out of service for more than 10 months. We’re hanging on by our fingernails.”

Even so, he is proud that his team managed to bring the fuel fire under control and rescue trapped people from their homes.

Azemar’s fear is a recurrence of last week’s horror, as the unreliability of supply leads people to load up on fuel when it’s available and store it in their homes.

On a larger scale, the complete absence of zoning laws in Cap-Haitien has allowed gas stations and propane depots to open in densely populated areas.

“If there is a leak, it can cause irreparable damage. The gas stations are very close to the people,” risk-management specialist Ceder Simon tells Efe.

With no building regulations, the poorest people erect precarious housing on hillsides overlooking ravines piled high with garbage.

Those flimsy structures are regularly swept away by mudslides during hurricane season and would stand no chance in the event of a major earthquake.

Southern Haiti was struck in August by a magnitude-7.2 temblor, while as many as 300,000 people died in the magnitude-7.0 quake that rocked Port-au-Prince in 2010.

Cap-Haitien, which lies in the Septentrional-Orient fault zone, was wiped out in 1842 by a temblor and ensuing tsunami that also devastated coastal areas in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

“All the conditions exist for a great catastrophe if an earthquake happens,” Simon says. “It’s worrying.” EFE mp-mm/dr

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