Jeanne's Hatin' Haiti
By the Associated Press and Sandra Hernandez and Tania Valdemoro
September 21, 2004, 5:35 PM EDT
GONAIVES, Haiti --
Blood swirled in knee-deep floodwaters as workers stacked bodies outside the hospital morgue Tuesday. Carcasses of pigs, goats and dogs and pieces of smashed furniture floated in muddy streams that once were the streets of this battered city.
The death toll across Haiti from the weekend deluges brought by Tropical Storm Jeanne was at 620, with some 500 of them in Gonaives, but officials said they expected to find more dead.
Waterlines up to 10 feet high on Gonaives' buildings marked the worst of the storm that sent water gushing down denuded hills, destroying homes and crops in the Artibonite region that is Haiti's breadbasket.
Floodwaters receded, but half of Haiti's third-largest city was still swamped with contaminated water up to two feet deep four days after Jeanne passed. Not a house in the city of 250,000 people escaped damage. The homeless sloshed through the streets carrying belongings on their heads, while people with houses that still had roofs tried to dry scavenged clothes.
"We're going to start burying people in mass graves,'' said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti. Some victims were buried Monday.
Flies buzzed around bloated corpses piled high at the city's three morgues, where the electricity was off as temperatures reached into the 90s. Many of the dead at the flood-damaged General Hospital were children.
"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.
Dieufort Deslorges, spokesman for the civil protection agency, said he expected the death toll to rise as reports came in from outlying villages.
More than 1,000 people were missing, said Raoul Elysee, head of the Haitian Red Cross, which was trying desperately to find doctors to help. The international aid group CARE said 85 of its 200 workers in Gonaives were unaccounted for.
Brazilian and Jordanian troops in the U.N. peacekeeping mission sent to stabilize Haiti after rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February struggled to help the needy as aid workers ferried supplies of water and food to victims.
CARE spokesman Rick Perera said the agency had about 660 tons of dry food in Gonaives, including corn-soy blend, dried lentils and cooking oil and was working to set up distribution points.
Argentine soldiers 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. Barefooted survivors tore their feet on shards of zinc roofing lurking in the floodwaters.
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.
The European Union sent $1.8 million in urgent aid, to be distributed by the Red Cross and other aid agencies, according to EU Development Commissioner Poul Nielson.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Haiti's interim president, Boniface Alexandre, pleaded for help.
"In the face of this tragedy ... I appeal urgently for the solidarity of the international community so it may once again support the government in the framework of emergency assistance,'' he said.
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.
Jeanne came four months after devastating floods along Haiti's southern border with the Dominican Republic. Some 1,700 bodies were recovered and 1,600 more were presumed dead.
Gonaives 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.
In South Florida, local leaders rallied to respond to this latest catastrophe. They said it has pushed the local Haitian-American community to a desperate edge as they watch their homeland overwhelmed by political and environmental problems.
"Jeanne caught us completely by surprise," said Marlene Bastien, head of Haitian American Women of Miami. She described the mood in the community in Miami and in Haiti as somber and pessimistic.
"What else is going to hit us next?" Bastien asked. "There's a sense of hopelessness. I've never heard such skepticism from people calling into the radio."
Bastien was among a group of local Haitian-American leaders who met Monday night in Little Haiti to announce the formation of the Haitian Relief Task Force, which will provide food, money and other help to Haitians who are victims of the recent hurricanes in South Florida and the Caribbean.
The group said it will work with the Haitian Red Cross and other organizations to ensure aid reaches the needy, given the current political turmoil.
In February, armed rebels forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to flee the country. Since then, an interim government, backed by international forces, has struggled to restore order and disarm rebels and Aristide supporters alike. Much of the country remains without a stable police presence.
The nation's political instability worries many, including Bastien, who said it could make getting aid to the needy more difficult because areas are blocked by both sides.
"We will need to find experts to go to Haiti to assist the families, to unblock roads. It would be useless if we get anything and we are not able to deliver them to the people," she said.
Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner associated with Aristides, cautioned that Haiti's environmental crisis is one of the biggest issues facing the nation of 8 million. The lack of trees and other vegetation that can absorb rain during heavy downpours makes Haiti especially vulnerable to floods and mudslides.
"Each rainfall is a catastrophe in Haiti and unless we deal with this, any efforts to rebuild the country or create political reconciliation will be threatened," Voltaire said. "You can build schools and roads but they will get wiped out by floods again and again unless you do something about the environment."
On Monday night at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Delray Beach, area Haitians debated whether to send food and clothes along with needed funds. A phone call from Latortue, of Boca Raton, decided the issue.
"What we need now is money, because it gets there quicker," said facilitator Father Roland Desormeaux, who was talking to Latortue on a cell phone and relating their conversation to the audience. "He will provide transportation -- airplanes and helicopters -- to get it over there."
They set a goal of $300,000 to resolve immediate needs of food, water and clothing. All donations can be sent to the Delray Beach Catholic Church, 510 8th Ave.
In Miami, donations can be dropped off at the following sites:
Georges William Enterprises: 4586 NE 2nd Ave., 305-576-7768
FANM: 8320 NE 2nd Ave., 305-756-8050
St. Paul and Martyrs of Haiti: 6744 N. Miami Ave., 305-758-8546
For more information on relief efforts, visit http://www.hagcoalition.freehosting.net or http://www.fanm.org
Staff Writer Alva James Johnson and Akilah Johnson contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.
Sandra Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954 356 4514.
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