The New York Times
September 25, 2004

Floodwaters Recede From Haitian City, but Hunger Does Not

GONAÏVES, Haiti, Sept. 24 - Floodwaters receded Friday in this city where flooding from a tropical storm took more than 1,000 lives, leaving behind thousands of tired and hungry people who labored to clear the mud and debris from what was left of their homes.

United Nations officials managed to distribute more than 40 tons of corn, flour and water in two of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of the city, Raboteau and Bienac, avoiding the mob scenes that have hampered aid efforts in recent days. But the United Nations soldiers at Raboteau used tear gas and fire shots in the air to control the crowd in the afternoon, witnesses said.

But chaos and looting reigned elsewhere, as officials said the lack of help from the Haitian government and city police had hamstrung their efforts to feed more people. "We are having trouble organizing the distribution because there is no authority existing in the town," said Eric Mouillefarine, who heads the Haiti branch of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "The government is absolutely not responding."

Mr. Mouillefarine said the United Nations could distribute food in only two places because it needed to use soldiers and police officers from a peacekeeping force in Port-au-Prince to keep mobs of men from looting the food before it could be given to women who have been identified as needy. The police fled the city on Thursday, he said, without any warning.

Without United Nations soldiers to guard them, some trucks carrying private donations from churches in other parts of the country were attacked and looted by bands of young men. The men raced after the trucks, climbed on the backs and broke the chains holding them closed.

At 2:10 p.m., a crowd of looters managed to steal dozens of mattresses being trucked in from a church in the capital. The men ran down the street, ripped open the truck's rear doors and threw the mattresses out to the crowd. Earlier in the day, at about 10:15 a.m., people mobbed a truck in front of a school the United Nations is using as a headquarters here, scrambling after bananas, water and juice and frightened church workers trying to avoid being crushed by the crowd.

"This is not the place to do this," screamed Areito Ferreira, a Portuguese police officer who commands a United Nations police team here. "There is no coordination around here."

Some residents complained that even the distributions of bread and water that CARE International has made in recent days were being hijacked and resold.

Other residents said they had already given up on official aid efforts. Leslie Desronvil, 52, said he had made a six-hour trip to Port-au-Prince to bring back spaghetti, rice, beans and other staples to his beleaguered family. The first floor of his house on Avenue Datts, a major thoroughfare, had been destroyed by floodwaters, and he and his wife, Fedline Émile, were living on the flat roof. They had hauled their furniture up and were cooking over an open fire.

Mr. Desronvil said he had seen young men take the food provided by CARE International and the World Food Program and resell it. "They need to give the food out house by house," he said.

Hundreds of people tried to fish their belongings from the wreckage of their homes and wash them in the muddy, sewage-filled water on the streets. Scenes of wreckage were everywhere: tractor-trailers and cars overturned and thrown about like toys by the rushing waters of the storm, which has now developed into Hurricane Jeanne and is predicted to hit the Bahamas and Florida over the next few days.

The streets were full of people carrying buckets of water from the few places where drinkable water was available. Others skimmed oil off stagnant pools left by the storm. Many walked the wrecked streets while dabbing their noses with lime to cut the stench.

Still, there were signs of normal life returning to the town. Women began selling fruit, edible roots and other foods at open-air markets in neighborhoods on higher ground. Government backhoes cleared clogged storm drains.

Near the port, mechanics were hard at work fixing bicycles and mopeds - the most common mode of transportation here - cleaning the mud out of their engines. The buses and trucks that ferry people to other towns began to run more frequently, and residents could be seen bringing back bags of food to their families.

Mercilia Saintilien, an elderly lady, was among several neighbors sitting amid the wreckage of seven houses dismantled by the storm waters, trying to dry some clothes she had just washed in a bucket, draping them over the rocks that had been part of the destroyed houses.

She had nearly died in the storm with her two grandchildren, she said. She and the children were trapped inside her house, unable to open the door and watching the water level rise inexorably toward her chest. She was saved when two neighbors, braving the wind and rain, climbed on her roof and cut a hole in the corrugated galvanized metal sheeting. They hoisted her and the children out just in time. She showed a reporter the jagged cut in her arm she received during the rescue.

Health workers said they still worried about the possibility of epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other water-borne illnesses. The flood destroyed Providence Hospital, the city's main health care center, killing six patients and wiping out its operating room, laboratory and pharmacy.

So the city is depending on a makeshift clinic put together by Chilean soldiers at the United Nations headquarters as well as three other clinics staffed by foreign doctors, including a contingent from Cuba.

So far, most of the injuries have been minor wounds that quickly became infected in the inescapable pools of dirty water and mud, doctors and nurses said. "The whole problem is sanitary," said Dr. Rudolfo Betancourt, a captain in the Chilean Army who was running the United Nations clinic.

He said the lack of fully equipped hospitals had made things difficult for health workers. A 10-year-old boy died from a bad infection this morning, for a lack of the right antibiotics, he said. The medics were confronted with a man with a fractured leg that they could not set properly. "There was no place to take him," he explained.

While United Nations officials complained about the shortage of Haitian police officers to help with food distribution, Haitian officials charged that the United Nations was making a grave error in distributing food at only two sites on Friday. They said more and more food was being shipped into town from Port-au-Prince only to be stored at a warehouse run by CARE International rather than being quickly distributed.

Heber Pélissier, president of the local chamber of commerce, said the United Nations needed to bring more soldiers to the ravaged city to begin handing out food in more places.

"They don't have enough military to secure the distribution points," he said. "More food is coming in and not enough is going out. Every day there is a convoy that comes and it doesn't go out."

But United Nations officials and aid workers said they were still trying to assess where the most needy and hunger-stricken residents were. It is true that CARE has more than 1,600 tons of wheat, lentils and oil stockpiled in its warehouse, but without secure distribution points and some way of gauging who is in need, it would be foolhardy to begin handing those supplies out, they said.

Gary Philoctète, the mission development manager for CARE in Haiti, said his agency had first responded to the crisis by delivering bread and clean water to almost any area it could reach. But now it is trying to make the food deliveries to the hardest-hit parts of the city, while watching the level of food available in local markets. He said it made no sense to begin handing out food without enough police officers or soldiers to keep the crowds orderly.

"You can't settle a distribution center in five minutes," he said. "Security is key. People are in need, but you have to set up a system."