A River Runs Through It

As any travelled visitor to Haiti will tell you, Jacmel is among the country's most beautiful towns. On the south shore, facing the warmth of the Caribbean, this once-booming seaport had electric light before New York City; it was the first town in the Caribbean to get wired. At the time, countless bushels of coffee and other tropical delights came down out of the hills to be stacked in Jacmel's stunning brick-floored warehouses, waiting to be loaded onto steamers bound for the markets of the north.

Now the lone pier jutting out into the sea is moribund, and the once-grand buildings are tattered, the locks rusty. Mangy dogs roam the streets, and the tourist stalls are devoid of visitors. Fabulous pillared warehouses lie empty; some are burnt shells. Tropical loft culture has not yet managed to overcome the bureaucratic stumbling blocks posed by the dozens of squabbling heirs who control these spectacular waterfront properties, arguing amongst themselves for decades as the buildings languish empty, and termites and salt air slowly eat away at a spectacular architectural heritage of wrought iron balconies and high-ceilinged splendor.

This season's four spectacular hurricanes haven't helped spruce up the city (and it is only the end of September). The Haitian president described the devastation, nationwide, as being like Katrina, with no budget whatsoever to help those whose homes were washed away, buried under silt, or flooded to the eaves. The flat, miserable, bayside armpit that is the city of Gonaives, across the mountains in the dead center of the country, is still under water, they say, or under mud, many thousands rendered homeless. Up above, looming over every coastline of this vertical country, the treeless mountains are helpless to contain the torrential rains, and the runoff blasts down the valleys, like a flash flood in a desert canyon.

A dysfunctional, underfunded government, and a donor-fatigued international community, increasingly comfortable with looking the other way, have combined to create a museum of devastation. Jacmel, at the mouth of a river, is always hit hard in the Caribbean monsoon, but in my dozen and more trips here in the 1990s I never saw anything like the streets which today lead down to the sole jetty; no asphalt or concrete surface is left, and where pushcarts and longshoremen once rolled down to the port, there is now nothing but a rutted, riverine wash of gravel, boulders and sand. What was once an important commercial street is now a gully, at the heart of the city.

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