Haitians Weather Hurricane: 'If We're Going To Die, We're Going To Die Here'

Oct 9, 2016
Originally published on October 9, 2016 7:59 pm

In Port Salut, the individual signs of the Hurricane Matthew's destruction are everywhere. A giant mango tree with its thick trunk snapped like a wishbone. A cinder block house crumpled on its foundation. But it's only as you continue to drive through this part of the coast that you see the extent of the damage. The devastation goes on and on. Hillsides are swept clean of trees. Neighborhood after neighborhood is in ruin.

On the first Sunday after the storm, parishioners gathered inside the roofless Mission Evangelical Baptist Church in Port Salut for Mass. Hurricane Matthew's 145 mph winds peeled the metal sheets from the rafters of the church and caused part of the front of the building to collapse.

"I'm 64 years old. I've been a pastor for 41 years," says the church leader Nerjuste Louis Sony. He rode out the storm in his small cinder block house behind the church. "All my life and all my ministry life, I've never seen such a devastating storm."

When the earthquake devastated much of Haiti in 2010, this part of the country was far enough away from the epicenter that it wasn't damaged. But there was no such luck this time.

Most of Port Salut's buildings are now either destroyed, damaged or disappeared.

Nicholas Buisson's low-slung, white concrete house is the only one left standing along one section of the beach.

"It was pretty amazing, pretty amazing," Buisson says of the storm. "There was a lot of wind, a lot of water."

He says the most powerful winds started around midnight and the small shacks around him started to explode.

"Sheet metal was just flying. You see them back there?" he asks, pointing to shredded sheets of corrugated metal stuck up against a fence. The metal sheets "were flying, hitting the house. They were like missiles. Flying missiles."

Buisson was born and raised in Haiti, but spent most of his adult life in the U.S. In 2013 he came back to Port Salut to live with his two brothers in a house they bought by the ocean. When they heard Hurricane Matthew was coming, they decided not to evacuate.

"Basically we were the only ones that stayed here in the house," he says. "Most everybody left. But us, we said, 'We're not leaving here. If we're going to die, we're going to die here. Because this is our place.' "

Now their yard is clogged with downed trees and debris flung in by the crashing surf.

Buisson's brother is trying to repair an aging RV. Now it sits up against the front of the house, shoved there by the storm. An American flag still flies from the roof of the vehicle. Buisson spent 34 years in the U.S., but he says Haiti was always home.

"I want to stay here. I would like to stay until I die. Because this is the place I was born. This is the place that I love. This is my house," he says.

And not even the powerful winds of Hurricane Matthew that killed many of his neighbors were going to drive him out of it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to go back to Haiti now, where Hurricane Matthew caused massive damage in parts of the country. There's been talk that some towns were almost totally destroyed by the storm, but people haven't been able to reach them. Today, NPR's Jason Beaubien visited one, Port Salut, on Haiti's south coast.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In Port Salut, it's possible to describe the individual signs of the destruction. A giant mango tree with its thick trunk snapped like a wishbone. A cinderblock house crumpled on its foundation. But it's really hard to describe the extent of the destruction. The devastation goes on and on - hillsides swept clean of trees, neighborhood after neighborhood in ruin.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

BEAUBIEN: Hurricane Matthew's 145-mile-an-hour winds peeled half the roof off the Mission Evangelical Baptist Church in Port Salut and caused part of the building to collapse. But today, parishioners gathered inside the shell of the building anyway for mass.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

BEAUBIEN: The pastor, Nerjuste Louis Sony, rode out the storm in his small cinderblock house behind the church.

NERJUSTE LOUIS SONY: (Through interpreter) I am a pastor for the past 41 years. All my life, all my ministry life, I've never seen such a devastating storm.

BEAUBIEN: Back in 2010 when the earthquake hit Haiti, this part of the country was far enough away from the epicenter that it wasn't damaged. But there was no such luck this time. Most of Port Salut's buildings now are either destroyed, damaged or disappeared. Nicholas Buisson’s low-slung concrete house is the only one left standing along one section of the beach.

NICHOLAS BUISSON: It was pretty amazing (laughter), pretty amazing - a lot of wind, a lot of water.

BEAUBIEN: He says the intense winds started around midnight.

BUISSON: The sheet metal was just flying. They were just flying from what we see - you see them back there? Those were flying, hitting the house. It was like missiles, like flying missiles. They turned to flying missiles from where - from all over. You know, all the houses that had - that have the sheet metal, they were just flying like missiles, basically. And there was no tree standing basically all over the whole community.

BEAUBIEN: Buisson was born and raised in Haiti but spent most of his adult life in the U.S. In 2013, he came back to Port Salut to live with his two brothers in this house by the ocean. And when they heard Hurricane Matthew was coming, they decided not to evacuate.

BUISSON: We basically were the only ones that stayed here in the house. Most everybody left. But us, we say, we're not leaving here. If we're going to die, we're going to die here. If we have to die, we're going to have to die because this is our place.

BEAUBIEN: Now their yard is clogged with downed trees and debris flung in by the crashing surf. The storm shoved an aging RV that his brother is trying to repair up against the front of the house. An American flag still flies from the roof of the vehicle. Buisson spent 34 years in the U.S., but he says Haiti was always home.

BUISSON: I want to stay until - I would like to stay until I die because this is the place I was born and this is the place that I love. This is my house.

BEAUBIEN: And not even the powerful winds of Hurricane Matthew that killed many of his neighbors were going to drive him out of it. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Port Salut, Haiti. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.