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Tropical Storm Jeanne Kills Dozens in Haiti Port

An aid worker says he counted 50 bodies in Gonaives and expects the toll to rise.

September 20, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — In a deadly parting shot before turning north into the open ocean, Tropical Storm Jeanne lashed northern Haiti on Sunday, setting off flooding and mudslides that aid workers said killed at least 50 in the historic port of Gonaives.

The latest in a series of tempests that have ravaged the Caribbean and southeast United States over the last five weeks, Jeanne has been blamed by officials for 29 deaths -- 20 in Haiti, seven in the neighboring Dominican Republic and two in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

But Michel Matera, a relief specialist with the U.N. Development Program in Haiti, toured the inundated city by helicopter then by foot Sunday afternoon and reported that the death toll could soar.

"We counted 50 bodies but there will be much more. There will be hundreds. The whole city is flooded and we estimate that about 80% of the population will need emergency relief," he said by telephone after returning to his office in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

Gonaives, wellspring of the slave rebellion that brought about Haiti's independence, creating the world's first black republic 200 years ago, is home to about 200,000 of Haiti's 8.5 million population.

In a separate effort at damage assessment, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and other officials tried to reach Gonaives in a U.N. truck convoy but were blocked by flooded roads.

"We don't know how many dead there are," Latortue said. "2004 has been a terrible year."

Much of Gonaives was under water and thousands of residents of the port were in need of evacuation, said Dieufort Deslorges, a spokesman for the Haitian Interior Ministry.

Jeanne, which had reached hurricane force last week, weakened to a tropical storm, with sustained winds of 45 mph and occasional blasts as powerful as 85 mph when it hit Haiti.

International agencies were scrambling to deliver food, shelter and medicine to the latest disaster scene, said Juliana Minsky, a spokeswoman for Direct Relief International.

Haiti's once-verdant mountains have been denuded by poor people seeking firewood, creating smooth slopes prone to mudslides and flash flooding. In the southeast, along the border with the Dominican Republic, more than a thousand Haitians died in May when torrential rains washed entire hillsides of dirt and rock into low-lying villages.

Gonaives also suffered massive disruption in February, when an armed gang rose up against the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and took control of the northern half of the country. The city was blocked from food and fuel supplies for weeks.

Rebels remain in control of some northern areas despite a 6-month-old U.N. peacekeeping deployment and a disarmament edict that called on all insurgents to lay down their guns.

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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