For a generation, people have fled the floods that routinely wash across this city for the relative safety of Port-au-Prince. Now, they're fleeing back.
By busload and car, aboard smashed pickup trucks and dirty motorcycles, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people have poured out of the earthquake-devastated capital and into the region around Gonaives, a city inundated by flood waters and mudslides not once but twice in the last six years. And nobody knows how long they'll stay.
Maire Delphin Alceus's daughter, Katya, was among the thousands killed in Gonaives and the surrounding Artibonite area by the floods of 2004's Tropical Storm Jeanne. The family left to seek better fortune and schools in the capital, returning for visits — including one in 2008 that coincided with more floods, from Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike.
Then, in last week's killer quake, Alceus's 26-year-old son, Woodley Saint-Pierre, was crushed when their rented house in downtown Port-au-Prince collapsed. Her half-sister also perished, and with her the family's livelihood, since she had kept them going by buying clothes and perfume in Miami for resale in Haiti.
So it was back to Gonaives.
"Living in Port-au-Prince is a problem. Going to Gonaives is another problem. Everywhere you go is a problem. If I could, I would have left this country and been somewhere else by now. But I have no way to do that," Alceus said.
Gonaives, a city of some 300,000 people on the coast 60 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince, was completely cut off in both the 2004 and 2008 floods, separated from the rest of Haiti by a lake, the flooded plain of Savanne Desole, that swallowed part of the main north-south road. It took days to ship in aid. And it is still a disaster area 1½ years after the last floods.
New road, old problem
A replacement road was completed in late December, just ahead of a Jan. 1 address President Rene Preval delivered in Gonaives, cradle of Haiti's 1804 independence from France, result of the only successful slave rebellion in modern history.
But the new road is much lower than the high-water mark left by the last storms, and would disappear again if the floods returned.
The old Alceus family home, a two-story structure with a peach-colored facade in the poor neighborhood of Raboteau, now houses eight people. It sits amid a grid of wide unpaved streets and stately balconies where armed gangs battled police, U.S. soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers and each other before and after the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Dressed in white, fresh from evangelical church, Alceus said she didn't want to return north but had no choice. Her cash was spent and all her half-sister's merchandise was lost in the quake.
Alceus is now raising her nephew, Godson Macdavid Desire, 5, found by neighbors in the wreckage of the family's Port-au-Prince apartment when they heard him begging for water from beneath the rubble.
He doesn't know his mother is dead, and Alceus covers his ears when she discusses it.
'Six months of panic' starting in June
Meanwhile, her father, Croyance Alceus, 86, owns the Gonaives house outright. With the national tax office destroyed, he may not have anything to pay in property taxes this year, giving the surviving family a place to live for now, even if another killer storm arises this hurricane season, beginning in June.
"An earthquake comes not so often, but floods can come any time. Every year (in Gonaives) you have six months of panic," said Pascale Lefrancois, a U.N. humanitarian affairs coordinator in the region.
U.N. workers, themselves balancing continuing threats of disaster and the funerals of co-workers and friends, were still trying to get a firm fix on the exodus to the Artibonite. The presence of these internal refugees seems not to be choking the dusty streets of the city yet, but is felt in one key indicator: Prices for such basic food as rice and corn have shot up more than 25 percent since quake survivors began arriving on Gonaives' doorstep.
The new arrivals appear to have spread far and wide, in city homes and villages among the denuded mountains, whose rampant deforestation, from overfarming and the cutting of trees for cooking fuel, has cleared a path for the region's destructive floods.
Other quake migrants are in Gonaives hospitals, where one downtown amputee ward overflowed with patients, and the Cuban doctors asked passers-by for help getting medication they badly need.
The good news, said the U.N.'s Lefrancois, is that local officials are looking for ways to move people, including any new refugees, from the most vulnerable areas of this city.
But again, nobody really knows.
"I'm scared, but I'm living by the will of God," Alceus said.