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Les Cayes: stranded by Hurricane Matthew in Philippe Guerrier secondary school

Emergency
Haiti

Following the passage of Hurricane Matthew, 180,000 people in Haiti have been forced to seek refuge in temporary shelters. They are now starting the long wait to be rehoused. In the biggest city in southwest Haiti, Les Cayes, dozens of displaced families have transformed the classrooms of Philippe Guerrier secondary school into makeshift dormitories. We spoke to them about their experiences.

Handicap International's team with Méralia Simon, 90, who took refuge at Phillipe Guerrier secondary school, in les Cayes.

Handicap International's team with Méralia Simon, 90, who took refuge at Phillipe Guerrier secondary school, in les Cayes. | © B.Almeras / Handicap International

Following the passage of Hurricane Matthew, the uniformed students have deserted their desks at Philippe Guerrier secondary school, in the centre of Les Cayes, the largest city in southwest Haiti.

They have been replaced by dozens of families from surrounding neighbourhoods, forced to take refuge in the local school. These resourceful people are making the best of the facilities made available to them to recover from their ordeal.

With no mattresses to hand, tired mothers have turned desks into beds, while their children play in the schoolyard under the sun baking, without a care in the world. They use the balconies to dry their colourful clothes, which clash with the whitewashed classroom walls. One of the families has even transformed a stricken school bus into a suite.

Inside the classrooms, the displaced locals try, as best they can, to get some rest. For them, it’s impossible to forget the hurricane, because of the hardships they now face and because their homes have been destroyed by the disaster. But everyone is happy to be safe and sound.

“We were frightened out of our wits”
Sitting in front of one of the first-floor classrooms, Marie-Ange Descote, 40, is wearing a fresh plaster around her left leg. “I slipped and injured myself as I was making my way to the shelter during the storm,” she says. “There was so much wind and mud... I managed to get to the school and I had an operation in hospital.”

Watched by her daughter Ansa, she admits – not without regret – that she should have “gone to the shelter earlier. They issued alerts before but there was never any real damage. I thought it would be the same this time, I thought it wasn’t worth worrying about... but we were frightened out of our wits.”

Preventive evacuation of vulnerable people
On the ground floor, Jonas Cazeau, 30, is quietly reading his bible, lying on one of the only beds in the building. Jonas owes this “privilege” to his disability. Following an incident, as he describes it, Jonas suffered an injury and lost the use of his legs. Since then, he has used a wheelchair to get around, no mean feat in his neighbourhood of La Savane, where the roads are in a terrible state.

“I didn’t have a choice, the Civil Protection officers fetched me and brought me here on Monday evening [3 October] because I was too vulnerable,” he explains. “The hurricane frightened me, but we were safe here with my mother and my companion... my home has been destroyed and I don’t know how long I’m going to stay here.”

In the neighbouring classroom, Méralia Simon, 90, hair as white as her dress, was also preventively evacuated by officers from the Civil Protection department. Unlike Jonas, she is completely alone, without family or neighbours to look after her.

On the night of the hurricane, she didn’t hear a thing. “I’m deaf and I didn’t even realise what was happening.” Like the other people taking refuge in Philippe Guerrier secondary school, she has nowhere to go and little hope of finding a new house anytime soon. She begins to recite the names of every cyclone and hurricane that has hit Haiti in the last fifty years... without forgetting to add Matthew to her long, long list.

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