A former Nova Scotia RCMP officer and his wife are helping Haiti weather the storm after Hurricane Matthew touched down on Tuesday.
Robin and Beth Churchill were helping families in need “hunker down” as rain, floods and harsh winds hit the Haitian island of La Gonave.
The Churchills and their two youngest children moved from Halifax to the island, about 12 miles from the Gulf of Gonave, just over a year ago. Their three adult children live in Canada and the U.S.
By Tuesday morning, Robin told the Chronicle Herald that conditions quickly turned from wet to severe.
As soon as the winds picked up and trees began to fall, Churchill drove along the coast to check on some impoverished families.
“The water is already up and into the houses. A lot of those homes down there are not structurally sound,” he said over the phone Tuesday.
He said many of these homes are constructed of old tin, which are beginning to disintegrate under the pressure of the wind and rain.
Matthew, the strongest Caribbean storm in a decade, hit Haiti and the Dominican Republic Tuesday morning.
As of mid-afternoon, at least six people were feared dead and several houses, churches and schools were damaged.
In 2010, Haiti suffered one of its worst natural disasters when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, killing 230,000 people.
The Churchills work with a local organization called West Indies Self Help (WISH), which provided shelter and medical care for many refugees after the last earthquake. For the past 50 years, the organization has been trying to improve living conditions on La Gonave.
“Our primary function is to keep the water flowing,” Churchill said. “Without the water it’s very dry here.”
WISH has built a water line that runs down a ravine and provides water to 19 fountains around town. They also operate an airport, dental clinic and library on the island.
Since Churchill became director of the organization, he has been busy organizing a youth centre.
“One of our staff members lived up in a precarious place in a ravine,” he said, adding that WISH has a team of about 20-30 people. “So we moved her down in a nursing residence so she has some place to stay.”
He said that will be the story of many people in Haiti as the hurricane continues.
“They just need a safe place,” he said. “Some of these homes are precariously situated on cliffs.”
Churchill was en route to check on the House of Hope, a partner organization that houses people who can’t afford homes of their own.
He said the organization will be opening up their library for anyone who needs a place to stay.
WISH also has moving trucks at their disposal that they use to help international organizations working to haul supplies. Many of these organizations are already on the ground, including CARE.
“Every person in Haiti is vulnerable. It’s the worst hurricane we’ve seen since 1954,” said Canadian Laura Sewell, CARE’s assistant country director in Haiti, in a news release, .
Sewell said the flooding is a risk, and so are water-born diseases like cholera.
“The wave size is also huge and has destroyed homes on the coast,” she said.
Churchill said his home is high enough up that he’s doesn’t think his family will get hit with the storm surge or mudslides.
But many will not be as lucky.
Churchill said it’s important to keep the attention on Haiti all year — not just in emergencies.
“Because a lot of what we do is strengthening infrastructure so it can weather a storm like this.”
They also work to strengthen the building community by teaching Haitian leaders how to do the work themselves.
For those wishing to lend a hand, Churchill suggests sourcing out a trustworthy organization, one that will provide on-the-ground assistance.
“That’s typically where your dollar is spent the best,” Churchill said. “Helping somebody that is already on the ground here.”
Original publish date: Oct. 4, 2016