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Haiti Storm Toll Could Reach 2,000; Many Are Still Stranded

September 23, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GONAIVES, Haiti — The death toll from Tropical Storm Jeanne threatened to reach 2,000 Wednesday, as tens of thousands of survivors wailed for food and water from rooftops, where they were marooned by knee-deep moats of mud and sewage.

Four days after residents were washed from their homes, more than 1,000 bodies had been counted in Gonaives and nearly 60 in other parts of the island's northwestern province, said Dieufort Deslorges of the civil protection agency. The number of missing rose past 1,200.

So desperate were the survivors that Argentine troops in a U.N. aid convoy had to fire eight shots to stop rioting outside a school so the World Food Program and the Oxfam charity could begin handing out the first loaves of bread and plastic bottles of water.

From the air, the city looked like a sprawl of aquatic campsites, with blue tarpaulins provided by the relief agencies offering crude shelter on some of the flat roofs, furnished with salvaged chairs, mattresses, tires and clothing.

"We could only save the children. We have nothing else -- it's all gone," said Wistha Jacques, whose four preschoolers slept on piles of damp clothing plucked from the filthy water that had reached the eaves Sunday. "We've had nothing to eat since we came up here and only droplets of water."

Like 80% of the inhabitants of this city of 200,000, Jacques and her family fled to the roof when the floodwater that had seeped into the streets Saturday suddenly surged after nightfall, becoming rivers of debris carrying off cars, trees and the contents of houses.

Mud-encrusted sculptures of cars tangled with uprooted trees and bedsteads were scattered throughout the city, which was blanketed by the stench of decaying corpses and animal carcasses.

At a makeshift home next door to the Jacques family, a mere 2-foot leap, teacher Previlon Pradel, who had yet to find his own family, joined dozens of neighbors under lean-tos made of sheets and sticks sprawled on mattresses drying in the steamy tropical heat. A box spring atop a wrecked BMW at the front of the house served as springboard up to the communal shelter.

"No one knows why this place is so cursed," he said of his city's central role in the rash of crises that lately have beset Haiti.

This bicentennial year was meant to be a celebration of the slave revolt that began in 1791 and culminated in the declaration in Gonaives of the first independent black republic in 1804.

Instead, it began amid political strife and rioting that marred the New Year's Day anniversary of independence and became an armed rebellion that spread from this northern port to the doorstep of the capital, Port-au-Prince. On Feb. 29, then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled to escape the angry mobs that still hold sway here and in other cities.

It was, in part, thanks to gang leaders that any food got handed out here Wednesday. Hungry youths who pushed ahead of women and children in a ragged queue seemed to heed the orders barked by a few toughs with bulging pockets and wraparound sunglasses as much as the warning shots fired by the U.N. peacekeepers from a second-floor balcony.

The volume of the need has daunted peacekeepers and those trying to help.

"Everybody's desperate. They don't know where to go for the distributions or to get medical attention at the clinics," said a sweating and frustrated Maite Alvarez, a relief worker with Oxfam, which trucked in 35,000 liters of drinking water. Crowds of the newly homeless ran willy- nilly from truck to truck and building to building, hoping that each arriving vehicle was bringing something to eat or water to slake a thirst mocked by the ubiquitous brown floodwater.

Haitians in areas unaffected by the devastation tried to come to their countrymen's aid. Trucks with 4-foot tires -- needed to get through the knee-deep water on Route 1 from Port-au-Prince -- brought in bread rolls and plastic packets of drinking water, which volunteers tossed to the roof-dwellers.

"We went through St. Marc with bullhorns and asked the people to help, to give us what they could," said Herve St. Hilius, a student leader from the city a two-hour drive to the south.

Grammy Award-winning hip hop artist Wyclef Jean, who had been in Port-au-Prince to discuss a December benefit concert for his homeland, hitched a ride on a U.N. helicopter to survey the destruction.

"Every Haitian is my family," he said, adding that he hoped his visit would spur more generous donations from U.S. friends in the recording business. "One of my main reasons for coming here is that I always bring awareness -- Haitian awareness.... I can't be here without going to see my people."

Jeanne killed 18 people in the adjacent Dominican Republic and three in Puerto Rico before hitting Haiti. The storm has strengthened to hurricane status and forecasters say it could strike the southeastern United States this weekend.

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