The New York Times
September 24, 2004

Weary, Angry Haitians Dig Out of Storm

GONAÏVES, Haiti, Sept. 23 - As the death toll here in this shattered and flooded town rose above 1,000, people scrambled in the streets on Thursday after food handouts from the United Nations, shoveled mud from their flooded homes, and tried to come to grips with the aftermath of the tropical storm that raked the coast last weekend.

City officials said they had begun burying victims in common graves, but health workers said they feared cholera and other waterborne diseases would soon infect the survivors, who wandered through the streets, between washed-away buildings, through calf-deep, foul-smelling water, with their belongings on their heads.

Water and food were precious commodities, and the muddy survivors of the storm struggled with each other over handouts at the city hall, screaming at city officials who kept them at bay with sticks and rods.

"There is no water, no electricity, no communication," Mayor Calixte Valentin said. "Many people don't have a place to sleep."

The storm, code-named Jeanne, slow-moving and with relatively low winds, thrashed the north of Haiti last Friday and Saturday, flooding the island's denuded hills with torrents of rain that washed away much of this town. Residents said the waters rose as high as 10 feet in the streets of the town, drowning hundreds of people.

By midafternoon on Thursday, Haitian officials said the storm had killed more than 1,105 people in the country, the great majority of them in Gonaïves. Another 1,251 people were still missing, said Dieufort Deslorges, the spokesman for the Civil Protection Bureau. At least 4,000 houses were destroyed, he said, adding, "The biggest problem right now is the need for clean water."

In the town, carcasses of animals rotted in the receding waters and the smell of bodies and open sewers poisoned the air. Many buildings had been washed away. The rest were filled with heavy mud. Crops of corn outside town were swept away by the masses of water.

"There is no way to stay here anymore," said Medira Jarmis, a 45-year-old laborer who was fleeing Gonaïves with eight family members after the flood destroyed two of his houses. "There are so many deaths that the place stinks, and there is nothing to eat and nothing to drink."

The catastrophe here comes in a year marked by revolts, military intervention and deadly floods. Gonaïves was also a center of fighting during the revolt in February that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in which 300 people were killed.

Maita Álvarez, an aid worker with Oxfam, which is distributing clean water, said: "The hygiene situation is appalling. There is no running water, no latrine. Some people have been drinking dirty water where dead bodies were floating. It's appalling."

The efforts by the United Nations, Oxfam, CARE and other aid groups to get food and water to the town have been hampered by the poor condition of the main road from the capital, Port-au-Prince, a trip that takes at least five hours. Just outside Gonaïves, the road is submerged for about a mile under three feet of flood waters. Several trucks have slipped off the road into the water, including at least one World Food Program vehicle.

People trooped through the water, some weeping, with their belongings on their heads, heading for other towns where relatives might take them in. In the streets of Gonaïves, people angrily complained that no food or water was getting through. Hunger sparked many fist fights, and city officials said aid trucks were mobbed by residents before they could distribute the food they had brought.

"If people don't get aid now, many of them will die of starvation," Bishop Yves-Marie Péan, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Artibonite Department, who is sheltering more than 300 refugees in his residence and in the town's cathedral. "We need water, clothes, pots, sleeping bags, toiletries, toothpaste, soap."

Some victims were also trying to deal with the trauma of having watched loved ones die. Along the streets, tired people with vacant stares could be seen sitting on their stoops, surveying the flooded roads.

Robenson Previus said he watched his cousin attempt to swim from a flooded house across a street that become a river, in a vain effort to reach a two-story building. His cousin, Charles Hubert, who was 27, disappeared under the waters, his arms thrashing. They buried him at a mass grave on Thursday in a neighborhood called Bois Marchant, Mr. Previus said. "City Hall came and buried the body."