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Waiting for Hurricane Tomas to hit Haiti...

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Nursing Times’ resident Haiti-based nurse Fi Stephenson takes us through her thought-process as she and Haitian residents wait for a potential hurricane to hit.

Although I have been in a similar situation before in Florida, preparing for a storm here seems much more daunting.

With all the information available on the internet, it is good to be able to prepare the best one can. But is it enough? I suppose only in hindsight, can one say yes.

Sitting here in Port au Prince, the list is similar:

  • Clear any potential flying objects from outside
  • Obtain sandbags for known weak spots
  • Fill up the vehicles with fuel
  • Obtain enough drinking water
  • Buy in enough dry food for a week
  • Ensure the generator is full of fuel
  • Get torches, batteries and candles.
  • Medical kit
  • Think of a safe place to be in the event of high winds and rain (away from windows that may not stay shut or break with gusts and any potential wind tunnels)

I suppose we will only know if we have prepared enough when the storm has passed; if only crystal balls were obtainable.

The hope is that the hurricane will not materialise, or at least that it will drop to, at most, a tropical storm. The teeniest raincloud though would be very much welcomed.

My mind is constantly plagued with thoughts of the tent city inhabitants and of the spinal chord injury patients that I discharged earlier. I know some of them live in the low lying areas near the port.

Information is on the radio. People have been advised to seek safe shelter. But where could they go? How do 1.3 million people find a safe place? The UN and NGO’s are preparing best they can.

The weather charts are now predicting that the whole of Haiti will be affected, so a safe place does not really seem an option for a lot of people as they would be moving from one flimsy shelter to another.

I feel totally helpless - suspended in the lull before the storm. I also feel very lucky. And I feel guilty at the same time, because I have 4 walls and a roof to give me protection. I also have the knowledge and was therefore able to be prepared with safe food and water. I am trying to help prepare as many people as possible and hope that cascading information will at least help a few more.

Having been up in Cap Haitien and experienced the landslides after a night of rain in February, I know the devastation that can occur and the pain it can bring to affected families.

I have been having flashing visions of flooding water, houses being swept away, mud, landslides, and over-bent palm trees. In the western world we are provided with these vivid images in abundance on news bulletins of other storms in various parts of the world, so I guess my imagination has something to feed it.  

Knowing that there is so much top-soil erosion and deforestation here in Haiti just does not help my thought process.

It is just so weird. There just seems no sense of urgency that I have witnessed (yet). Maybe I should not be surprised as people here really do just live for the day. as many of them do not know that there will be a tomorrow; many live from meal to meal.

The small group of us here are taking things in our stride and we are all calm about what may happen towards the end of the week. All we can do is prepare ourselves, stay vigilant, and remain calm. But what about the Haitians living in the tents and flimsy huts made from tarpaulin and odd bits of wood and plastic? The guilt I am feeling that I am not out there helping them directly…but what can I do – there are thousands upon thousands of people out there. I guess I just need to stay safe and in one piece so that I have the energy and ability to care for people afterwards, if needs be.

Talking together, we have discussed how the storm may present - where the wind will come from, whether the surrounding mountains will be our shelter and break up the impending gale force winds. I am regularly checking the weather updates.

I have put my documents and electronic equipment into various zip-lock plastic bags and will be packing an ‘overnight bag’ in preparation.

We have decided that we will all stay in the main house during the storm instead of in our own rooms, which are dotted around the property.

Now we just have to carry on and wait.

We did have a Team of volunteers due to arrive tomorrow but quite rightly they have deferred their visit until after the storm, so hopefully we will be able to welcome them next week.

It just seems so unfair that Haiti has to deal with this whilst it is still coping with the cholera outbreak. As of 28 October the official death count was 305, with 4,649 reported hospitalised cases. There have been no new cases confirmed in West department but there are cases in Nord and Nord Est, and the MSPP are still confirming 4 departments now affected.

Furthermore, it is so unfair that Haiti has to cope with this new test whilst still coping with the after-effects of the earthquake. Even though it was ten months ago, the effects from the earthquake remind us everyday of its devastation. Just yesterday I sat and sorted through old patient notes. I must admit it made me feel very ‘flat’…’2002, 45 yr old - stroke; 2005, 36 yr old - stroke; 2008, 54 yr old - stroke - and so on. It got me thinking that they were, most likely, dead - be it from their stroke or the earthquake. A morbid thought. Each dossier seemed to indicate the same thing. It was odd to see that they only presented once. I guess they did not return, either because having a stroke has been seen in Haiti as a certain death sentence, or they just did not have the money to return for the follow-up - even though the clinic had ‘ability to pay’ categories. Or perhaps they did not turn up again since the earthquake as the clinic was destroyed as a result of it.

So here we are, in the lull before the storm, medical kits at the ready. Let’s hope it does not happen and it is just a bad dream.

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