Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Floods from Jeanne kill more than 600 in Haiti

Haitian families stay outside of their houses after flooding and mudslides in Gonaives, Haiti, Monday, Sept. 20, 2004. Receding floodwaters raged through neighborhoods of Haiti's third largest city, dragging people from their homes and forcing survivors to spend the night in trees, atop cars and on rooftops following Tropical Storm Jeanne. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

By AMY BRACKEN, Associated Press Writer
GONAIVES, Haiti - Bloated corpses and weeping relatives filled morgues in Haiti after Tropical Storm Jeanne left at least 622 people dead, another tragedy on this Caribbean island in a year marked by revolts, military interventions and deadly floods. The death toll was expected to rise.

Hardest hit was the northern city of Gonaives, where search crews continued to recover bodies carried away by the raging weekend floods or buried by mud or the ruins of their homes.

Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said at least 500 people had died in Gonaives.

"I lost my kids and there's nothing I can do," said Jean Estimable, whose 2-year-old daughter was killed and another of his five children was missing and presumed dead.

"All I have is complete despair and the clothes I'm wearing," he said, pointing to a floral dress and ripped pants borrowed from a neighbor.

Many of the bodies stacked in the city's flood-damaged General Hospital were children.

Residents waded through ankle-deep mud outside the mayor's office, where doctors were treating the wounded and aid workers were helping a woman give birth.

Elsewhere, 56 people were killed in northern Port-de-Paix and 17 died in the nearby town of Terre Neuve, officials said.

Dieufort Deslorges, a spokesman for the government civil protection agency, reported another 49 bodies recovered in other villages and towns, most in the northwest.

"We expect to find dozens more bodies, especially in Gonaives, as ... floodwaters recede," Deslorges said.

The storm came four months after devastating floods along the southern border of Haiti and neighboring Dominican Republic. Some 1,700 bodies were recovered and 1,600 more were missing and presumed dead.

Floods are particularly devastating in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, because it is almost completely deforested, leaving few roots to hold back rushing waters or mudslides. Most of the trees have been chopped down to make charcoal for cooking.

Gonaives, a city of about a quarter million people, also suffered fighting during the February rebellion that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and left an estimated 300 dead.

All this in a year supposed to be dedicated to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country's independence from France. Haiti, the only country to launch a successful rebellion against slavery, was the world's first black republic.

Two days after lashing Haiti, Jeanne regained hurricane strength over the Atlantic on Monday but posed no immediate threat to land. The storm entered the Caribbean last week, killing seven people in Puerto Rico before heading to the Dominican Republic where it killed at least 18.

Katya Silme, 18, said she, her mother and six siblings spent the night in a tree because their house was flooded.

"The river destroyed my house completely, and now we have nothing. We have not eaten anything since the floods," she said.

Waterlines up to 10 feet high showed the passage of the storm waters, which turned some roads into fast-flowing rivers. Floodwaters destroyed homes and crops in the Artibonite region that is Haiti's breadbasket.

Deslorges described the situation in Gonaives as "catastrophic." He said survivors "need everything from potable water to food, clothing, medication and disinfectants."

Three trucks carrying Red Cross relief supplies rolled in Monday, but two were mobbed by people who grabbed blankets and towels. U.N. troops stood by watching. Only one truck arrived intact at the mayor's office intact with tents.

People tripped over each other to grab tiny bags of water thrown from a Red Cross truck in front of City Hall, where officials said about 500 injured were treated Monday.

"Everyone is desperate," said Pelissier Heber of the Artibonite Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites).

Argentine troops who are among more than 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti treated at least 150 people injured by the floods in Gonaives, mostly for cuts on feet and legs.

One man stood outside the flooded base used by Argentine troops, asking soldiers to remove 11 bodies that were floating in his house, including four brothers and a sister.

"I would like to see if the soldiers could do something about these bodies," said Jean-Saint Manus, a 30-year-old student. "The door was closed. Everybody was trapped inside."

He said he had been outside and could only get in once the floods subsided.

Equipment including the X-ray machine was covered with mud at Gonaives' General Hospital, said Dr. Pierre-Marie Dieudonne, a doctor with the Catholic agency Caritas.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue toured flooded areas Sunday and declared Gonaives a disaster area, calling for aid. The U.S. Embassy announced $60,000 in immediate relief.

In the Dominican Republic, at least 11 people drowned Monday in rivers swollen by Jeanne's heavy rains.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Jeanne was about 405 miles east of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, with winds near 85 mph, moving northeast at about 7 mph.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Karl and Tropical Storm Lisa remained far out in the Atlantic. Karl's sustained winds were 140 mph, making it a Category 3 hurricane. Lisa had winds of 60 mph.