Hanna leaves behind despair in Haiti

Floods block delivery of aid; 137 are killed

This photo released by UN peacekeepers shows a section of Gonaives on Wednesday. Some 70,000 people there are in shelters. This photo released by UN peacekeepers shows a section of Gonaives on Wednesday. Some 70,000 people there are in shelters. (Marco Dormino/Associated Press)
By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press / September 5, 2008
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GONAIVES, Haiti - The convoy rumbled out of the UN base toward a flooded, starving, and seething city yesterday, carrying some of the first food aid since Tropical Storm Hanna killed 137 Haitians and drowned Gonaives in muddy water three 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, semipaved 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. UN peacekeepers wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests jumped out while others stood guard with assault rifles.

Before them, a huge gouge marred the road. The floods had split the asphalt, and water ran through the 10-foot-wide gap.

The convoy turned around. And the children - like tens of thousands more in this increasingly desperate city - went another day without food.

At least 137 people died when Hanna struck Haiti, 102 of them in Gonaives and its surroundings, officials said yesterday. Some 250,000 people are affected in the Gonaives region, including 70,000 in 150 shelters across the city, according to an international official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. Lieutenant Sergio Hoj of Argentina estimated that half of the houses in the region remained flooded yesterday.

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.

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 as it swamped tin-roofed houses.

Hanna finally moved north yesterday with near hurricane-force winds on a path toward the southeastern US coast. But in the chaos there was no way to know how many people might be dead or how many had been driven from their homes. Two other storms killed 85 people in August, and forecasters warned that Hurricane Ike could hit Haiti next week.

Haiti's government has few resources to help. Rescue convoys have been blocked by flood waters, although the UN World Food Program said yesterday that 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.

In the capital, US Embassy spokeswoman Mari Tolliver said $250,000 in relief supplies arrived in Haiti yesterday, 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 . . . 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.

Ad Melkert, associate administrator of the UN 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."

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