Corpses float amid rescue efforts in Haitian city

Friday, September 5th 2008, 10:18 am
By: News 9


Associated Press Writer

GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) -- Corpses surfaced in the muddy wreckage of this sodden city Friday as floodwaters receded after Tropical Storm Hanna, raising the known death toll to 137.

But the break in the weather is expected to be short -- Hurricane Ike, now a Category 3 hurricane -- could sideswipe Haiti this weekend, even as international aid groups struggle to reach thousands of victims marooned without food or drinking water.

"I am worried because the soil is completely impregnated with water and there is no way for the rivers to take more water," said Max Cocsi, who directs Belgium's mission in Haiti of Doctors Without Borders. "We don't need a hurricane -- a storm would be enough."

Cocsi, who arrived in Gonaives on Thursday, told The Associated Press that no one knows how many have been killed. The focus now is on reaching the living, not recovering bodies.

Late Thursday, a few blocks from where U.N. peacekeeping troops stopped to dish out cooked rice from their own food supplies to a small crowd of hungry orphans, a woman's corpse in a floral dress was floating in a submerged intersection.

"I haven't eaten since Monday," 12-year-old Srita Omiscar said as she waited in line with about 50 others.

Earlier in the day, a convoy rumbled out of the U.N. base on the edge of Gonaives toward the city, carrying some of the first food aid since Hanna struck four days ago.

Hungry children at three orphanages were waiting for the canvas-topped trucks, loaded with warm pots of rice and beans and towing giant tanks of drinking water.

The trucks didn't make it.

The convoy crept over mud-caked, semi-paved roads past closed stores, overturned buses and women wading in water up to their knees with plastic tubs on their heads.

After about 45 minutes, the half-dozen trucks ground to a halt. U.N. peacekeepers wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests jumped out while others stood guard with assault rifles. It was impossible to drive farther -- floods had split the asphalt, and water ran through the 10-foot-wide (3-meter-wide) gap.

The children -- like tens of thousands more in this increasingly desperate city -- went another day without food.

Haiti's government has few resources to help. Rescue convoys have been blocked by floodwaters, although the U.N. World Food Program said Thursday it was sending a food-laden boat to Gonaives from the capital, Port-au-Prince, and would set up a base in the stricken city.

"All roads able to access Gonaives are cut either by bridges that have collapsed, by trees that have fallen down, or by waters that have washed away parts of the streets," U.N. food agency representative Myrta Kaulard said.

She said the U.N. peacekeeping mission was also hoping that its helicopters could take more U.N. personnel along to begin handing out aid, which includes 19 tons of biscuits, 50 tons of water, and water purification tablets.

At least 137 people died when Hanna struck Haiti, 102 of them in Gonaives and its surroundings, officials said. Some 250,000 people are affected in the Gonaives region and 54,000 people are living shelters across the country, according to government estimates. The storm also killed at least two people in Puerto Rico.

Gonaives -- a collection of concrete buildings, run-down shacks and plazas with dilapidated fountains -- lies in a flat river plain between the ocean and deforested mountains that run with mud even in light rains. Hanna swirled over Haiti for four days, dumping vast amounts of water, blowing down fruit trees and ruining stores of food.

Many houses were torn apart. Families huddled on rooftops, their possessions laid out to dry. Overturned cars were everywhere, and televisions floated in the brown water.

In the capital, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mari Tolliver said $250,000 in relief supplies arrived in Haiti Thursday, including jugs of drinking water, and would be sent to Gonaives by boat or plane.

"The idea is to get it there within the next day or two. Every effort is being made," she said, adding that another $100,000 will be used to buy bedding, kitchen items and other goods for victims.

"The situation in Gonaives is catastrophic," Daniel Rouzier, Haiti chairman of Food for the Poor, wrote in an e-mail. "We, just like the rest of the victims ... have limited mobility. You can't float a boat, drive a truck or fly anything to the victims."

Anger and frustration were growing at the inability or unwillingness of the government and the international community to help.

"If they don't have food, it can be dangerous," warned Sen. Youri Latortue, who flew in by helicopter. "They can't wait."

Dozens of people gathered around the gates of the U.N. base. Some children climbed cinderblock walls topped by barbed wire to ask soldiers inside for food. Edgy U.N. peacekeepers went on a heightened state of alert, and have traded their floppy hats for helmets.

Ad Melkert, associate administrator of the U.N. Development Program who just returned from Haiti, admonished international donors to do more.

"The poverty in the rain and mud of Haiti that I witnessed is nothing less than a disgrace," he said. "Many actors or potential actors try to play their part, ranging from the national government to multilateral and bilateral donors and NGOS. They all need to do more and better."

The few aid-group representatives in Gonaives did what they could -- but knew it wasn't enough.

Up to 400 people huddled in the Roman Catholic Church and the residence of Bishop Yves-Marie Pean, turning it into a de facto refugee camp. Many camped out on the watery grounds, while the lucky ones rested on chapel pews.

"We have shared with them what we had, but now we don't have food or drinking water," Pean said by telephone. "What is left is for the babies. We are praying together in solidarity in this very difficult moment."

Chantal Pierre, 19, somehow made it to the gates of the U.N. base, which is occupied by mostly Argentine troops. Soldiers carried her on a stretcher into a gym and laid her gently down. She went into labor amid the weightlifting equipment.

Minutes later, at a makeshift hospital on the base, she gave birth to a healthy girl.

A day earlier, Dorlean Nadege, 26, had given birth at the same place. Both babies slept in their mothers' arms Thursday. The doctor, Julio Cesar Lotero, said Pierre would leave on Friday, but Nadege would stay because her home was destroyed by floodwaters.

"She has to stay here," he said. "She has nowhere to go."


Associated Press writers Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)