* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Seeing the images of Haiti devastated by Hurricane Matthew moves me and gives me a feeling of déjà vu. I have been lucky enough to work in Haiti over several years and loved my time spent alongside some incredible Haitians. But it also brings back memories of facing a terrible disaster - this is sadly not the first time Haiti has faced a major humanitarian catastrophe, and, unfortunately, not the last time either.
Back in 2008, the first of many times I would set foot in Haiti, the country was hit by four successive hurricanes. Thousands of people were affected, many lost their home and belongings, and massive landslides destroyed entire communities. Then, in 2010, the world was shocked by the heart-breaking pictures of destruction and desperation left after the violent earthquake that killed 230,000 people and injured a further 300,000.
In both of these disasters, as it will be the case with Hurricane Matthew, people with disabilities are often disproportionately affected. In 2008, I remember wading through thick grey mud to speak with a blind man. Before the hurricane he was independent and ran his own shop. But when I met him, he was housebound, unable to find his way around through the mud. I met countless other people whose wheelchairs or walking aids had been damaged, and who could no longer move around independently.
Fast forward two years and the 2010 earthquake had an equally catastrophic impact on the population. I still vividly remember how the actions of my team on the ground at the time were a question of life or death for thousands of Haitians. Some people had terrible injuries that, left untreated, could turn into life-long disabilities. In a country where the only rehabilitation centre was reduced to dust, 4,000 people lost a limb in the earthquake and needed prosthetics to walk again. Thousands more were already in a situation of disability and found themselves in very difficult circumstances – unable to access food, water or shelter.
Sadly I know from experience that, in a disaster such as Hurricane Matthew, people with disabilities and injuries struggle to access the care they need and can easily find themselves excluded and forgotten. As one of Handicap International’s surveys ‘Disability in humanitarian context’ highlighted, a shocking 75% of people with disabilities believe that they have insufficient access to essential humanitarian services.
This is the reason why we will do everything we can to ensure that after Hurricane Matthew, vulnerable, disabled and injured people are not left behind.
Handicap International’s teams in Haiti are assessing the damage and the essential needs of people affected by the hurricane. A backup team is also arriving this week to help organise the emergency response and facilitate access by other humanitarian organisations to areas worst hit by Hurricane Matthew.
At the moment, with the main bridge between the capital and the affected area cut off and mobile communications on the brink, it’s very difficult to know the exact situation. But we do know a few things:
- Haiti is an extremely impoverished country. Many people live in very precarious circumstances and are still recovering from the deadly earthquake of January 2010. In this context of widespread poverty, a hurricane like Matthew has the power to completely devastate entire communities and the conditions for people with disabilities are alarming.
- Haitians are resilient. Having spent a long time working alongside and supporting some fantastic people, I know they will overcome this hurricane, yet another disaster to hit their country.
- Sadly, in a few weeks or even days, the fate of Haitians will drop out of the news and the world’s attention will move on. But Haitians will still need our help once the camera leaves. The Haitian government has called for international assistance, and we have a responsibility to support them. To help us give life-saving and practical help to disabled, injured and vulnerable people affected by Hurricane Matthew you can make a donation on our website.
My heart goes out to each and every Haitian. A natural disaster is an awful experience to live through and very tough to overcome. Haitian people need our help and support to get through it and get their life back on track.
We must leave no one behind.