The Miami Herald
Mon, Sep. 20, 2004

90 dead in Haiti

Tropical Storm Jeanne causes havoc in the Caribbean, battering Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico


PORT-AU-PRINCE - Tropical Storm Jeanne's rains triggered raging floods in Haiti over the weekend, killing at least 90 people, authorities said Sunday -- making it the largest loss of life from one storm in a single country so far in a particularly vicious hurricane season.

Dozens were missing and feared dead, and the casualty count was expected to rise. Most reports had at least 28 dead in Gonaives, a major port city and historic landmark where Haitians declared independence from France in 1804. But at least 10 casualties also were reported elsewhere, mostly in northwest Haiti. One radio journalist in Haiti reported late Sunday that at least 200 people had been swept away by swollen rivers. The report could not be independently verified.

Catholic humanitarian agency workers picked up 62 bodies and counted another 18 at a morgue in Gonaives, the Rev. Venel Suffrard, director of the Vatican-based Caritas International chapter in that town, told The Associated Press.

The massive flooding suddenly overshadowed the high death and colossal damage left by Hurricane Ivan in its painful passage through the Caribbean, Cuba and the United States.

A World Health Organization worker, Pierre Adam, said he toured parts of downtown Gonaives and saw people pushing wooden carts filled with bodies.

''There is no life left in the center of town,'' Adam said.

Brazilian Cmdr. Carlos Chagas, assistant to the U.N. force commander overseeing a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, told the AP early Sunday that at least 50 deaths had been confirmed. But many people feared it was much, much higher.

''A lot of people are dead everywhere, it's just awful,'' Lt. Col. Santiago Ferreyra, commander of an Argentine brigade, was quoted as saying by the AP.

Ferreyra said he counted 10 bodies floating in the floodwaters as he drove the 18 miles from the town of Ennery -- where he had celebrated the anniversary of Chile's independence Saturday night with Chilean troops stationed there -- to Gonaives.

''There are a lot more that we haven't seen yet,'' he warned.

Much of Gonaives was still under waist-deep water Sunday, and aid workers were having trouble evacuating all the people in need, said Dieufort Deslorges, of the Haitian Ministry of Interior.

Residents told journalists the floods caught the town by surprise Saturday night.

Jean-Baptiste Agilus, 46, said he watched the water engulf houses in his neighborhood, filling some with 13 feet of water. He saw one neighbor run from his house, saying his wife and two children, ages 12 and 15, were swept away in the flood. ''The water rushed into their home, all the homes in the neighborhood,'' said Agilus, a teacher. ``It destroyed everything.''

Haitian Americans in South Florida said they had been unable to reach friends and relatives in Haiti all weekend.

''Nobody has been able to get through,'' said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. ``We are very concerned.''

She gasped when a Herald reporter related the death toll, reported late Sunday.

''Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God,'' Bastien said. ``That is horrible! We knew something was wrong because of the failed attempts to get through.''

According to different radio reports, the death toll was so high because the floodgates of a dam on Artibonite's Peligre River -- Danger River -- were opened.

In a similar tragedy last May, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people on the Haitian-Dominican border died after a natural dam burst under the pressure caused by intense rainfall.

On Sunday, the bodies of at least three victims of flash floods were found off Isle de la Tortue -- an island just north of Port-de-Paix on the northwest coast, according to radio reports from Haiti. The entire Artibonite farming valley, most of whose main rivers empty into the ocean around Gonaives, was reportedly cut off by the floods.

Some radio reports also said that Port-de-Paix was under several feet of water.

United Nations officials said they were planning to send trucks and helicopters into the flooded areas today to assess the damage and deliver water and food.

The Associated Press reported that Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and his interior minister toured the area in a UN truck, but could not reach many areas because of flooded roads.

''We don't know how many dead there are,'' Latortue was quoted as saying. ``2004 has been a terrible year.''

Unlike the Dominican Republic, much of Haiti is deforested and was unable to hold back flood waters that tore through the northwestern coastal town of Gonaives and surrounding areas Saturday night, covering crops but not fully engulfing homes, leaving dozens of families huddled on rooftops.

Argentine troops, responsible for patrolling the region, treated at least 150 injuries, mostly bad cuts on feet and legs that required stitches, said Lt. Cmdr. Emilio Vera.

Four suffered broken bones and were evacuated by helicopter to the capital, some 60 miles southeast of Gonaives, Vera said. Residents brought at least 20 corpses to the base because the hospital was closed and not accessible.

Latortue declared Gonaives a disaster area and called on the international community to provide humanitarian aid. More than 3,000 peacekeeping troops are in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country with a population of 8 million.

The erratic storm lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Friday and Saturday, drenching northern Hispaniola and triggering flash floods.

The storm has been blamed for at least seven deaths in neighboring Dominican Republic and three in Puerto Rico.