MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Many Americans are still suffering from the effects of Superstorm Sandy. In a moment our panel of women journalists and commentators - we call it our Beauty Shop - will talk about how Sandy may or may not change the race for the White House.
But first we wanted to talk about how people elsewhere are coping with the aftermath of the storm. You probably know that before the storm hit the East Coast of the United States, then-Hurricane Sandy passed through the Caribbean. The impact on Haiti was particularly harsh. The storm drenched the country for days and left more than 50 people dead.
You might remember that this comes less than three years after that massive earthquake that devastated Haiti. We wanted to talk more about that with Jacqueline Charles, the Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. She's with us once again. Jacqueline, thanks so much for joining us once again.
JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: We understand you are just back from Haiti and while you were reporting there, you were able to view some of the destruction from a helicopter perspective. Can you tell us a little bit of what you saw?
CHARLES: Well, yes. I went in a helicopter with Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe on Saturday. The day before, myself and a colleague, we'd actually gone by road to the southern coastline where we got a really close-up view of the damage. And you saw a lot of farms that are underwater, a lot of homes that were destroyed. There was a scene of one gentleman walking in his front yard trying to get into his house and the water was chest high.
And, you know, the reality is, is that so many places have been impacted, but because the roads have been washed out by the storm you really aren't going to get a real sense of the devastation until the government is able to get access. But clearly, from the helicopter, what you saw was just devastation throughout in terms of washed out roads, rivers that overran their banks, homes that are destroyed.
There was one community where a delegate from that community was saying that homes seemed to have just collapsed into the ocean, because where homes once stood there were just empty lots right now.
MARTIN: Was the country able to take any precautions in advance of the storm, to move people into safer areas?
CHARLES: Not really. I mean, this storm was something that came over four days. It continued to rain. And we're talking about an area of the country, particularly the city of Les Cayes on the southern coast, that is just prone to flood with just normal rain. So imagine four days of consecutive non-stop rain, more than 20 inches of rain dumped, you know, in this area.
And so Haitians, you know, initially were told that the country - there's certain areas that have been put on highest alert, but the kind of mobility that you saw, for example, with Tropical Storm Isaac, you did not see this with this storm. So I think there was a lot of estimation.
And as I spoke to people on the ground, whether it was somebody who had just lost their home or someone who was, you know, in one of the international organizations, they kept saying the same thing: we were not prepared, we were not prepared.
MARTIN: You reported in one of your pieces that more than 200,000 people were left homeless. Where did they go?
CHARLES: Well, that's interesting because this is on top of the more than 350,000 people who remain homeless. I mean, what you saw with this storm was that while 21,000 were put in shelters, a lot of people have lost everything. These are people who didn't have anything to begin with. And so the government says that from their estimations, right now, 200,000 people don't have a place to sleep.
They don't have a roof over their heads, because either it was landslides or it was the river or; in some cases, it was the ocean, because so much of the coastline was impacted by this disaster.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald, Jacqueline Charles. We're talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy which hit Haiti earlier this week before it landed in the United States. We're talking about the terrible damage that was sustained there. And you were reporting - you were telling us, Jacqueline, that there were some regions in Haiti that were suffering from some food insecurity before Sandy struck. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CHARLES: Exactly. Interestingly enough, I went to Haiti to do a piece on food insecurity. And what you saw, based on an analysis - a very complex analysis - that was carried out after Tropical Storm Isaac in August, was that there was no region in the country that really was not impacted in one way or another with food insecurity.
But interesting enough, the one area where the people really were not concerned about their next meal or being able to cope with rising prices was in the south. And today that is the area most impacted by the damage. Thirty-three percent of the damage has occurred in the south. But that means avocado trees, vetiver, which is used in fragrance which employs a lot of people.
Breadfruits, corn, all of that is just completely underwater, has been washed away. Plantains or bananas, I mean, these are sustenance of a Haitian diet. All of that, today, is now gone.
MARTIN: The AP is reporting that 70 percent of the crops in that region are just completely wiped out which leads me, Jacqueline, to my next questions which is, you know, the president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, ran, in part, on the promise - and has continued to pledge - that Haiti would be able to manage more of its recovery on its own.
What do government officials - I know you had a chance to talk to some of them - what are they saying about that now? What role do they envision for the international community in this? Or is there one?
CHARLES: Well, I spoke to the prime minister on Friday and he said to me, look, we're doing the best that we can but we need international assistance. We need help. The government today has declared a state of emergency. They're hoping that the parliament votes for that which will allow them to do some spending.
They have their own food aid programs, but it's just enough. It's not enough when you imagine a country of 10 million people that today was already dealing with a crisis and now you have disaster on top of disaster, they need to get some sort of assistance, but that assistance isn't just about providing food.
You have to do something with the rivers because we have to remember the hurricane season is not over yet. And so this was not a direct hit on the country. So imagine the next couple of weeks, if you are able - you know, if another storm comes through like in 2008, four back to back storms in 30 days - and that was just awful.
So if you have another occurrence of an 2008, this country really is going to be looking at a major, major disaster. I mean, this is bad, but we have to remember it has been worse and it could get worse.
MARTIN: We want to save a couple of minutes to talk about Cuba, which was also badly hurt by this. But before we leave Haiti, Jacqueline, you've reported on and talked to us about the fact that the deforestation which occurred long ago in Haiti is part of the issue here, along with of course endemic poverty which makes the country so vulnerable to these massive flows of water.
Has there been any thought in the course of Haiti's recovery efforts from the earthquake about how there might be some long-term effort to reduce the devastating effect of these storms since Haiti is in a hurricane zone?
CHARLES: I have to tell you, Michel, you know, prior to Sandy I traveled from the capital all the way to the farthest northwestern most point of the country and then we came back down on the coastline before we ended in the north. I mean I've basically seen the entire country. And there was one thing that was consistent: charcoal. Along the streets people were - they had bags of charcoal waiting for the trucks to come.
And when I asked Haitians do you understand what you're doing to the country, do you understand the damage that you're creating, they said yes but we have to live. We have to eat. This is the only way we can eat. And so the government has banned Styrofoam, they've done some other things. But the reality is, is that you've got to provide people an alternative so that they understand that every time the disaster comes at some point they are inviting that disaster, unfortunately, by a way of life.
But a way of life, today, that they have no other control over because they have to eat.
MARTIN: Very briefly - we only have 30 seconds left - Cuba. Is the situation as difficult there?
CHARLES: The situation is difficult in Cuba but, you know, it's 11 people were reported dead and you had 137,000 homes, you know, that were destroyed. But the difference between Cuba and Haiti, interesting enough, by the next day they had the name of all of the deaths and they were already out starting to do a massive cleanup.
And I think that is where Haiti needs to be able to get itself to, where it has to be able to respond quickly to the disaster, regardless of the means, because this is a country that year after year is hit with disaster.
MARTIN: Jacqueline Charles is the Miami Herald's Caribbean correspondent. She was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Jacqueline, thank you.
CHARLES: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.