The entrance to the cave where many villagers go each time it rains. “The only place they can seek shelter is the cave,” the mayor of Beaumont says.
By Azam Ahmed, New York Times, Oct. 17, 2016
When the rain comes at night in these distant mountains, the people flee what homes they have left. They race down hills threaded with stones and ragged palm branches, the earth the color of rust.
They arrive at a cave carved into the hillside, the only sanctuary left after the storm. It is a holy place now, having saved hundreds of villagers duringthe worst of Hurricane Matthew, when nature tore their homes to the ground. It is still the only thing to protect them.
For four days and nights, they huddled in its womb before emerging, frightened the hurricane might return. They slept on a floor of stacked boulders near the cave’s mouth, lighting small fires for warmth and light.
When they left, they salvaged enough to shield them from the sun, a few corroded sheets of zinc and scattered wooden beams. But when it rains they return to the cave, their shacks unable to keep the water out. And despite the odor and humidity, the unforgiving crags and profound darkness, they are thankful.
“It is our house that God created when we most needed it,” said Destine Jean, one of the villagers who first alerted the government of the closest town, Beaumont, to the people living in caves. “Without this cave, a lot of people would have died. This is the only shelter we have.”
For much of the world, Haiti is known more as a crisis than a country. Disaster, whether man-made or natural, has come to define the nation, where progress is often just a prelude to another step back. Dictators, corrupt officials and international meddling have competed with earthquakes and hurricanes to destabilize the country.
There is a mean echo to the hurricane’s fallout this time around. After the 2010 earthquake flattened the capital and its surroundings, the struggle to get hundreds of thousands of Haitians out of tent cities and back into homes defined the nation’s recovery.
Now, schools and hospitals are again overflowing with the displaced, people whose homes are so gutted that leaving them makes more sense than staying. Where there is no shelter, residents are stripped to bare survival and forced to find their own way, even in caves.
Officials in Beaumont say there are at least six caves they know of like this one, sheltering a total of 550 people living amid the moss-colored alps of the country’s southwest. It was not until leaders like Mr. Jean gradually made their way down to seek help that officials even realized the people were living in caves.
The mayor of Beaumont, Alexis Faveur, shook his head in disbelief as he described the damage left by the hurricane this month, and the deplorable circumstances it reduced them to.
He dispatches workers every few days to check on the villages, sending them on a climb of several hours, bearing bags of rice, beans, pasta and cooking oil. But there was no space for any more survivors in Beaumont; the shelters are already overcrowded.
“The only place they can seek shelter is the cave,” he said, seated at a desk in his office, with blown-out windows and no electricity. “There are no more houses there.”
The village of Lacadonie embodies the very worst of what this hurricane has left behind.
Families scour for crops spared by the rain and scavenge the hillsides for plantains and beans not yet turned. A woman cooks rancid goat meat for her children, rinsing the blackened flesh with sour orange to cut the smell. Families mourn their dead in nighttime rituals, the spirits excised without being counted in a formal registry.
Residents have started the hard work of rebuilding, fitting together the broken pieces of their homes and lives without a trace of self-pity. Most estimate it will be years before they can afford to restore their residences, even to the humble state they were in before. For now, they will make do with far more modest accommodations.
The first home to be rebuilt after the storm belonged to L’Anise Nazaire, who owns the lands where the cave is. If God saved the people with the cave, villagers say, then Ms. Nazaire was his messenger.
A slight 55-year-old whose shyness belies her courage, Ms. Nazaire risked her life to implore people to flee, delegating the task of saving her own mother to neighbors so that she could race up the mountain and warn others. She led them to the cave and the soaring cathedral of stalagmites at its base, where thick bands of light issue from an opening above. Many risked the steep descent to feel the sunlight during their stay.
“After God, she gave us life,” Celor Montuna, a skeletal 54-year-old farmer, said of Ms. Nazaire. “She came and saved us.”
During the storm, they watched through the mouth of the cave as the wind and rain sowed destruction, carrying entire trees past the entrance like leaves tossed on a breeze.
“I thought Jesus was coming,” said Ms. Nazaire, pausing for a moment before breaking into a fit of laughter.
For all the gratitude, she claims no glory. The second phase of survival leaves no time for victory laps. In her newly constructed home, a jigsaw puzzle of retrofitted planks, thatched tinder and rescued roofing, everyone is busy.
“My life would be worthless without the others,” she said. “Without them, I would be dead myself.”
In the cleared patch of land where her family lives, her mother, Elaide Fracile, shucked dried beans from a tangle of pods, gathered hastily from their spoiled fields.
Her great-granddaughter played in her lap as she sorted through the remaining food, plucking out beans more by sense than sight. Her eyes are a milky blue, clouded by cataracts, her skin luminous and smooth. She says she is 100 years old.
She is old enough to remember the last time a hurricane like Matthew upended life, and cannot help but register history’s echo.
“I had a child with me that was 15 days old when Hurricane Hazel struck” in 1954, she said, handing a small black bean to the infant. “Here I am again with this little one.”
The child, abandoned by her mother, now belongs to her, Ms. Fracile said. They were together, in the same place, when Hurricane Matthew struck. Her son carried her on his back to the cave.
“I’ve survived four storms,” she said. “But none have killed people like this one.”
She beamed at her daughter, Ms. Nazaire.
“It would have been worse without the cave,” she said. “God has not abandoned us.”
Neighbors have come to one another’s aid, sharing food and resources — the valor of a tight-knit community where the missing are known by name.
A week after the storm, a goat herder, Jean Robert, his animals long since dead and rotting in the piercing sun, distributed what meat he had. Lithome Saint-Mesyeux, a father of six children, claimed a leg blackened by rot for his family.
He carted the meat to his wife, who prepared it in the yard of their shattered home as the sun set over the ridgeline. The stench wafted over the village, a putrid essence of death detectable in just about every remote reach of the region.
The busy work of staving off starvation occupied Mr. Saint-Mesyeux’s family. Father and son plucked dried corn kernels from their brown sheathing, tossing unusable white kernels to a starving pig that survived the storm.
Oranges found on the ground were squeezed over the meat. Young children pulled still younger ones away from the flames of a wood fire. A pot of beans was placed between two flat stones to cook for everyone. A rooster crowed as a dense fog rolled over the mountains.
“Our country has collapsed,” muttered a boy, Wilkens Desrosiers, who had come looking for food. “We cannot go to school and it will be years before we can rebuild our homes to what they once were.”
More neighbors arrived, each helping in their own way, sifting the food into tidy piles or fetching water from a river at the base of the mountain. The cave remained on their minds.
“Until we can rebuild our homes to stand the rain, we will return when it storms,” he said.
The dead were mourned in their absence. Mr. Desrosiers counted six by name, their passing registered only in the minds of survivors.
Throughout the mountains, death was recorded in intimate rituals, held in the valleys and far reaches, obscured from the eyes of outsiders. Near midnight, miles from the village, the pained ballads carried in the dark, fixed to the rhythm of drums fashioned from buckets and tin plates.
The music filled the hills, rising in a haunting chorus, the source visible by a sole candle lit in the bedroom of the departed. The words conveyed a simple hurt, a mélange of strength and loss.
“We are poor people, but we are strong,” they sang. “We will not live on our knees.”
The men sat in a small circle, the sons of a farmer who died in the storm. Led by their eldest brother, they would sing for eight days, having arrived only that morning from the capital to bury their father, Miradieu Alexis.
They spent the day reconstructing what they could of the home, now a solitary cabin embedded in the shadowless countryside of night. As they danced and sang, the smell of crushed foliage and sour rum filled the air, a performance as anonymous as the death it venerated.
Posted Oct. 21, 2016