October 21, 2004

Hurricane Jeanne Touches Down in Rochester

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Dessalines Similhomme's mother, Tifam, has lived in her pajamas the past month. So has his sister, Pelita, and his brother, Idely. The reason is that on the evening of Sept. 19, Hurricane Jeanne slammed into Haiti.

The storm came so quickly, Similhomme's family had to flee without pausing to gather any of their possessions. Within minutes their house was destroyed. First, a wall of water from the ocean swept through their home, toppling the furniture and floating the beds. Then a wall of mud surged from the other direction, demolishing the house and burying the rubble.

A Rochester resident since last year, Dessalines spent a full week of frantic days and nights, wondering if his mother and siblings had survived the onslaught that has killed 3,000 Haitians and left more than 300,000 -- that's about four Rochesters -- homeless and without food or fresh water.

Finally, he reached a friend in his hometown of Gonaives, the Haitian city that took the worst punishment from Jeanne, and got the news that Tifam, Pelita, and Idely were alive. But they had literally no possessions but their pajamas, and they were living in a two-room apartment with 25 other people. Until today, they have not had a drink of fresh water.

Voodoo Priests

"I feel very bad and it's hard to sleep," said Dessalines, who works at Sam's Club as a stock clerk. "I think about my mother, my brother, and my sister all the time, and also about all of the families who have lost everything."

It's especially ironic that Dessalines should be suffering, as he's spent most of his 43 years trying to help his fellow Haitians, first as a church pastor in Gonaives and then, after immigrating to the United States in 1994, in yearly trips back to Haiti to distribute food, clothing, bibles, and cash to the poor.

Last July, he bought and delivered enough rice, corn, and beans to feed everyone at the Church of the Prophetic God in Gonaives for a day, and then to take bags of dried food home. A videotape he took during the trip shows row upon row of young men and women, dressed in their Sunday finest, gulping down platefuls like there would be no tomorrow.

Dessaline's own journey to Rochester has been epic. In 1993, he was arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail. His captors readily admitted they'd been paid to arrest him by a consortium of voodoo priests, who were upset that his preaching was taking too big a bite out of their franchise.

Hellish Scenes

The next year, released from jail as arbitrarily as he'd been put in, but afraid to return Gonaives for fear of assassination, he met a United Nations official who encouraged him to apply for asylum in the United Staetes. He did so, and a few months later, with his wife and four children, he boarded an airplane for Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He got a job shrink-wrapping cosmetic products on an assembly line within eight days, and stayed in Iowa for nine years.

The on-the-scene reports he receiving from his friend via cellphone are nothing short of hellish. The 3,000 dead are only the bodies that have been recovered. There are still hundreds of corpses buried in the mud, which is five and six feet deep in places, along with dogs and goats and pigs that were also entombed alive in the sludge.

The stench is horrendous. When the United Nations disburses food, riots break out, and killings and fatal tramplings occur. Human waste in standing pools is everywhere. The one hospital in Gonaives, named Providence, was flooded, killing all the patients. Now it is running again, and filled with patients suffering from gangrene.

The cuts people got during the flood, even small ones, are getting infected and requiring amputations by the dozen. These accounts are corroborated by the American journalists and international aid workers who have rushed to Haiti.

Water Pumps

"Alleyways have become filthy canals, turning Gonaives into a putrid version of Venice," wrote Deborah Sontag in The New York Times on Saturday. The United States has pledged $21.8 million in relief aid to Caribbean countries affected by hurricanes, which means that Haiti, by far the worst hit by the storms, will share that total with Jamaica, the Bahamas, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic.

CARE, one of the most active relief groups to work in Haiti in recent decades, is also distributing aid. When the hurricane hit Haiti last month, Dessalines had just been to Menards to shop for a water pump and generator he planned to take with him on his next summer trip to Gonaives.

"Even before the storm, there was no clean water to drink," he said. "I thought things could never get worse than that. But they did."

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report