Caribbean floods trap thousands

Friday, May 28, 2004

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- U.S. and Canadian troops rushed medical supplies, drinking water and chlorine tablets Thursday to flood-battered towns, where bodies were seen floating near the tops of palm trees. Haitians and Dominicans braced for a death toll that could reach well over 1,500.

But an estimated 10,000 people in villages surrounding the submerged Haitian town of Mapou remained in urgent need of help and cut off by roads devoured in the mud and landslides, according to Michel Matera, a U.N. technical adviser.

"We are still having difficulty reaching them even by helicopter," said Matera, who traveled to Mapou on Thursday. "We cannot land because of the flooding, nor can we get there on foot."

To make matters worse, forecasters predicted more rain in the coming days for the southern border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as residents of Mapou tried to dry their clothes and other belongings on tree branches.

"We're also fighting time because weather is turning bad again," said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led force. Hurricane season, which marks the beginning of the rainy season, starts Tuesday.

U.S. Marines, traveling by helicopter, hurried to deliver drinking water and chlorine tablets to hundreds in Mapou, which was covered by more than 10 feet of water.

"The situation is serious," Lapan said of the town, some 30 miles southeast of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. troops delivered plastic tarpaulins for shelter in the Haitian border town of Fond Verrettes, and Red Cross workers in the Dominican Republic put up mosquito nets to help prevent malaria and dengue fever.

Mudslides have washed out roads in southern Haiti, preventing workers from getting an accurate death toll. U.N. teams planned to bring in boats today to help recover bodies. If workers cannot recover the corpses in time, they could contaminate water sources.

"You can still see bodies in the water coming up," Matera said. "Palm trees are almost covered. There is a grave risk of an epidemic."

U.S. Marines said they saw bodies near the tops of palm trees.

Rains over the weekend lashed the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, sweeping away entire neighborhoods early Monday. The floods struck before dawn while people were asleep. Some watched relatives and homes carried away in torrents of mud.

Some 450 corpses have been recovered in Haiti and 415 have been found in the Dominican Republic, with hundreds still missing in both countries.

At least 1,000 were feared dead in Mapou, where more than 300 bodies have been found, according to Margarette Martin, the government's representative for Haiti's southeast province.

For many Haitians, it was one more disaster to pile atop the troubles weighing down on the poorest country in the Americas. The U.S.-led force, brought in to help after rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29, struggled to fill urgent needs while they prepare to hand over control to a U.N. force next Tuesday.

Real estate salesman Sentheliare Veretnne, 45, said his family's small farm on the south coast was swept into the sea and others he knew were missing.

"I had no reaction because the country is already in crisis," he said. "We have no work, there's the political situation, everything. You can't react emotionally."

Haiti has become a hazardous place for flooding and mudslides because its impoverished people constantly fell trees to make charcoal -- a practice that has left the country almost entirely deforested. Without roots to hold back the soil, rains can bring disaster.

One 18-year-old Haitian, Pepe Dematin, traveled from northern Cap-Haitien across the border to the Dominican town of Jimani searching for his brother's family of five.

"I came to find them, but their house is gone," Dematin said. "I think they must be dead."

The U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic flew on Thursday to the Dominican border town of Jimani, where even dolls could be seen scattered in the mud.

"This situation is grim and we're looking at ways to get more money here," U.S. Ambassador Hans Hertell said after surveying the damage.

American and Dutch Red Cross workers were helping Dominican authorities search for more bodies and treat dozens who were wounded, said Gustavo Lara, of the Dominican Red Cross.

About 100 bodies also were found in the southern town of Grand Gosier, said Civil Protection Director Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste. Fifty more corpses were found elsewhere in Haiti.

About 160 people were still missing and presumed dead in Fond Verrettes, where rushing waters and mudslides swept away most homes and left the town looking like a barren riverbed.

Dominican authorities buried more than 250 bodies immediately, some where they were found and others in a mass grave. Authorities told families there was no time to identify the bodies because they were badly decomposed.

Jimani, about 100 miles east of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, is inhabited mostly by Haitian migrants who work as vendors and sugar cane cutters.

Associated Press writers Peter Prengaman and Jose P. Monegro, in the Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.

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