Tropical Storm Hanna's floods cause chaos, desperation in Haiti

Friday, September 5, 2008

GONAIVES, Haiti -- Floodwaters frustrated efforts by Argentine peacekeepers to distribute food at orphanages marooned by Tropical Storm Hanna on Thursday. They hunkered down in their base as desperate people begged for food and water outside the gates.

A Haitian politician struggling to gauge the extent of the damage in Haiti's fourth-largest city helicoptered into the U.N. compound and said the situation is critical.

"If they don't have food, it can be dangerous," Sen. Youri Latortue said Thursday after arriving from Haiti's capital. "They can't wait."

Half the homes in the low-lying city of 160,000 remain flooded in Hanna's wake, estimated Lt. Sergio Hoj, spokesman for the Argentine battalion.

Some 250,000 people are affected in the Gonaives region, including 70,000 in 150 shelters across the city, according to an international official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The official death toll rose to 61 Thursday as Hanna finally moved north with near-hurricane winds on a path toward the southeastern U.S. coast. But there was no way of knowing how many people might be dead in the chaos, or how many had been driven from their homes.

And forecasters warned that Hurricane Ike could hit the Western hemisphere's poorest country next week.

Gonaives lies in a flat river plain between the ocean and deforested mountains that run with mud even in light rains. Hanna swirled over Haiti for four days, dumping vast amounts of water, blowing down fruit trees and ruining stores of food as it swamped tin-roofed houses.

Many of the thousands of people who fled to rooftops, balconies and higher ground have gone without food for days, and safe drinking water was in short supply as the fetid carcasses of drowned farm animals bobbed in soupy floodwaters.

Businesses were closed -- both because of flooding and for fear of looting.

People in water up to their knees shouted to peacekeepers to give them drinking water, and women on balconies waved empty pots and spoons.

The Argentine soldiers have plucked residents from rooftops that were the only visible parts of their houses, but had little capacity to deliver food and water.

"It is a great movement of panic in the city," Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime said from a U.N. speedboat.

The Gonaives area accounted for most of the 2,000 victims of Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004. Some residents said the current flooding was at least as bad.

"This is worse than Jeanne," said Carol Jerome, who fled from Gonaives on Tuesday.

Haiti's government has few resources to help. Rescue convoys have been blocked by huge lakes that formed over every road into town. Associated Press journalists rode in with the first group of U.N. troops to reach the city aboard Zodiac boats.

The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince declared a disaster situation, freeing $100,000 in emergency aid, spokeswoman Mari Tolliver said. She said hygiene kits, plastic sheeting and water jugs for up to 5,000 families were expected to arrive from Miami on Thursday, but the biggest problem is reaching the victims.

Food for the Poor managed to get a shipment of food and water to Gonaives on Thursday, and expects to distribute rice, beans, clothes, boots and generators in the next couple of days.

"The situation in Gonaives is catastrophic," Daniel Rouzier, Haiti chairman of the Florida-based not-for-profit, wrote in an e-mail. "We, just like the rest of the victims ... have limited mobility. You can't float a boat, drive a truck or fly anything to the victims."

He said waters have receded in some places, leaving behind an almost a 2-meter (7-foot) high wall of mud.

"Please note that thousands of people have not had a sip of water in 36 hours," he wrote.

That includes about 1,500 people huddled in a shelter nicknamed the "Haiti Hilton," where Jezula Preval was caring for her healthy baby boy, born Tuesday night after floodwaters swallowed her house. "I lost everything, even the baby's clothes," she said.

The situation was dire elsewhere in Haiti as well. Floodwaters swamped a hospital near southwestern Les Cayes, and nurses moved patients to higher floors. At least 5,000 people in Les Cayes were in shelters, said Jean-Renand Valiere, a coordinator for the civil protection department.

Associated Press Writer Danica Coto in Puerto Rico contributed to this report.

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