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Haiti's Death Toll Reaches 1,500 After Storm

September 26, 2004|From Associated Press

GONAIVES, Haiti — The death toll in Haiti from Tropical Storm Jeanne, now a hurricane, shot up Saturday to an estimated 1,500, and hundreds were still missing as a thunderstorm drenched the homeless living on rooftops and sidewalks.

U.N. peacekeepers said they were sending reinforcements to help keep order among desperate survivors who had been looting aid trucks and mobbing food distribution centers.

A boy was struck and killed by a truck as crowds of hungry flood victims pressed against the gates of a warehouse storing food, said Roseline Corvil, an official of the aid agency CARE International. The boy, believed to be 13, was hit as the driver attempted to leave.

"I presume that he did not see the child," she said.

Last weekend Jeanne, then a tropical storm, hit Haiti, causing flooding and touching off mudslides that wiped away tens of thousands of homes. It has since strengthened to a hurricane and moved toward Florida.

Haiti's interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, estimated that more than 1,500 people died as a result of the storm, said Paul Magloire, an advisor. About 300,000 people are homeless, most in the northwestern city of Gonaives.

Magloire said the government was considering a rotating evacuation of the mud-coated and soggy city to allow cleanup operations. He said the plan was still under discussion, but the idea was to move people temporarily to tent camps while workers cleaned and disinfected each neighborhood.

With gang members trying to steal food out of people's hands at aid centers, 140 Uruguayan soldiers were on their way to reinforce about 600 U.N. peacekeepers already in this hard-hit city, said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the United Nations mission.

"Security is one of our major concerns," he said.

Officials said gangsters had forced their way into distribution centers and stolen food. Kongo-Doudou said troops had been able to chase them away without violence.

A U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, Eric Mouillefarine, said people were mobbing relief workers and "there's nothing we can do."

U.N. troops from Argentina fired smoke grenades Friday when about 500 men, women and children tried to break into a schoolyard where CARE International was handing out grain and water to an orderly line of women. The flood victims returned in surges once the air cleared.

The director of the World Food Program's Haiti operation, Guy Gauvreau, said Friday that aid groups had been able to get food to only about 25,000 people this week -- one-tenth of Gonaives' population.

During the night, lightning bolts lighted the sky above blacked-out Gonaives, thunderclaps exploded and sheets of rain lashed the thousands living on the street and on concrete roofs of flooded homes.

Some people said they hoped to evacuate the city.

"If one person gets sick, we'll all be sick," said Ysemarie Saint-Louis, who spent the night on her roof with more than 30 relatives who crowded under a small tin shelter during the thunderstorm. When the rain let up, they went back to wet mattresses and blankets.

Saint-Louis said she and the others hoped to go elsewhere in Haiti, perhaps the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Genevieve Montaguere, a nun from Guadeloupe, said relief deliveries were being limited to women because gangsters had bullied their way in earlier to make sure that only their buddies got food.

The thunderstorm hit as floodwaters finally were beginning to recede in Gonaives, where mud contaminated by overflowing sewage was forming a crust. People tried to fight the stench by holding limes or kerchiefs to their noses.

Kongo-Doudou said a team of specialists would begin to clean up the contamination. "We have to prevent the spread of diseases," he said, adding that the U.N. would be making an urgent appeal for more emergency aid.

The effects of the storm were worsened by Haiti's nearly total deforestation, which left valleys surrounding Gonaives unable to hold water.

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