Haiti hurricane victims face choice: leave or rebuild

Roche-à-Bateau (Haiti) (AFP) - The beach was like paradise. Then Hurricane Matthew turned it into a cemetery of coconut palm trees, with not a house left intact.

Facing such devastation, the residents of Chabet, a town in southwestern Haiti, are stuck between leaving or starting from scratch.

Hilaire Servilius paces around what was, two weeks ago, a beach of fine sand. Walking amid rocks carried ashore by the powerful waves unleashed by Matthew, he searches in vain for a telephone signal.

"The area is devastated. There's nothing at all left -- a person doesn't even have clothes to change into," said the 55-year-old man, his shirt open and ripped at the shoulder.

"I was born here. I spent all my life here but I must leave," he said, gesturing to the spot where his house sat before the ocean swept it away.

To rebuild a home, replant banana trees, the thought is unbearable to him. "I should begin the work all over? But no one knows what could happen again, so why do it?"

Resigned to leaving, Servilius survived living under a plastic sheet. He has no money to pay for transportation. "If I find someone to help me get away, I would say 'Thank you, dear God' for that would be his plan," he said, smiling and pointing a finger to the sky.

- 'Hunger in my stomach' -

On the other side of the road hugging the coast at Chabet, in Roche-a-Bateau, the damage is also significant. The ocean carried everything away when Matthew slammed into Haiti on October 4.

At 75, Abraham Roudilhomme remembers several hurricanes but none so catastrophic as this one. The tiny valley where he was living changed into a swamp littered with the trunks of coconut and banana trees.

Only the concrete gravestones resisted the storm.

"I have a son in Port-au-Prince. He came to see me last week. He told me he was coming back, and if he finds me, I'll leave with him," Roudilhomme said in a weak voice.

"I no longer have hope. I no longer have anything at all. I have only hunger in my stomach and it hurts," he sighed.

For Jules Sima, 44, the future lies right here. Dodging fallen branches, he rides his motorcycle every day, traveling 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the city of Les Cayes, where he lives, to Chabet to see his relatives left destitute by the storm.

Sima is sure he will rebuild the houses of his father and his sister.

- 'Head's not cut off' -

"Yesterday, I bought some iron bars and I'm going back to Les Cayes and think about what I can do to find cement, tiles, then I'm coming back," he said.

He refuses to see his 92-year-old father leave the town and is determined to build him a secure home, this time on higher ground. But his small salary as a school supervisor is holding him back from starting the project.

"No place is going to give me a real loan. That leaves me only loan-sharks to consider, with their loan installments at high interest rates," he said.

"I'm going to knock on every door and make sacrifices: that's my strategy to save my relatives," he said with a confident smile.

Motorcycle helmet crooked in his elbow, Sima tells his father to throw away the empty envelopes that are drying on a rickety table, one of the few pieces of furniture on the concrete slab, all that remains of the three-room house.

Starting from scratch in this landscape of dead trees does not scare him.

"There's a Creole proverb that says 'As long as the head's not cut off, it can hope to wear a hat'," he said.

"You don't give up."