Death stalks Haiti in the dark

04/19/2009 12:31 PM

04/19/2009 12:36 PM

(This story was originally published September 8, 2008.)

CABARET, Haiti -- Frantz Samedi had searched for his 5-year-old for two hours, trudging through heaps of storm debris and muddy water, calling her name, "Tamasha, Tamasha!"

When he finally found her, she seemed to be peacefully asleep, her body resting on the wet, mud-laden concrete slab next to 11 other children, ages 1 to 8. The graying man pressed his way through the crowd of survivors, carrying a pot of water. He knelt beside the lifeless body, gently washing the mud off his little girl with a sponge. "I can't leave her in this condition, " Samedi said, sobbing. "I should have died in her place." Tamasha and the other children were torn from their families when Ike swept through this poor oceanside town early Sunday. The tragedy here was but a microscopic glimpse of widespread devastation across the country.

Haiti awoke to a trail of human wreckage Sunday morning, much of it strewn through this town just north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where shortly after 2 a.m., Hurricane Ike's pounding deluge drove residents out of their homes and into the blinding sheets of rain. Two raging rivers overflowed their banks, swallowing up houses as the roiling waters broke doors down and poured through windows.

Ike killed at least 61 people in Haiti -- 57 of them in Cabaret -- government officials said. More than a dozen of them were children, swept away by the rains and rivers as their parents tried to run for cover in the middle of the heavy downpour.

The total death toll from back-to-back storms increased to more than 300, officials said Sunday. About one million people were left homeless by the four consecutive storms that brushed past this environmentally fragile and deeply impoverished country of 8.5 million people.

President René Préval told The Miami Herald on Sunday that his government "has made a huge effort" to provide assistance. He said that plans were under way to send money to all 142 municipalities in the country, but that "Haiti needs a flood of helicopters, at least 25 with pilots, " to help the country get food to storm victims.

"This is Katrina in the entire country but without the means that Louisiana had, " Préval said.

Both the United States and Venezuela announced Sunday that relief was on the way.

The USS Kearsarge was expected to arrive early Monday in Port-au-Prince with eight helicopters and three landing craft to carry relief supplies from the capital to affected areas in the north and south, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mari Tolliver.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing $7.1 million to relieve immediate suffering and to support longer-term rehabilitation and recovery. Staff members from USAIDs Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were dispatched to assist in relief efforts.

Venezuela, meanwhile, said it was sending 20 tons of food and relief supplies. President Hugo Chávez said Sunday that a plane loaded with food and bottled water would fly to the port city of Gonaives, along with aid workers and medicine.

What Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna didn't fully demolish, Ike finished off -- destroying scores of additional homes and desperately needed plantations, leaving entire communities submerged by flash floods.

And the largest outlying cities in this mountainous nation -- Gonaives and Cap-Haitien in the north, Les Cayes and Jeremie in the south -- were completely cut off from the capital, and from one another.

In the Central Plateau town of Mirebalais, the storm forced the collapse of a bridge that had served as the last route from Port-au-Prince into a starving Gonaives, where for the second time in a week, tens of thousands of residents took to rooftops to escape rising hurricane flood waters. Bridges leading into the city from Mount Rouis and Cap-Haitien had already collapsed in days prior, while main roads were submerged in huge lakes.

"The situation is very critical, " Joanas Gué, Haiti's new agriculture minister, said in a telephone interview from Mirebalais.

Although most of Gonaives' 300,000 residents had evacuated to nearby cities by Sunday, 100,000 opted to stay.

They were not the only ones who did not evacuate as word of the impending hurricane spread. In Cabaret, a town of about 60,000, residents said they did not leave because they had no way out and never imagined that Ike would cause such havoc.

"They tell us to leave, but we don't have anywhere to go, " said farmer Raymond Lafontant, 50, standing next to the Betel River, which hours earlier devoured his three-room concrete home when it came more than 200 yards inland.

' As the grim reality became apparent, mothers wailed, fathers screamed in agony, and local officials blamed the national government for not doing enough. But government officials and others said local leaders had not done their part in persuading people to leave. Nor had they done enough to prevent people from building homes on fragile river banks.

The blame did little, however, to soften the devastating blow that shook an entire community. Parents wandered aimlessly in the streets, hollering as they searched for missing children. Bodies appeared on almost every other corner. One river swept children downstream and another took elderly ladies, residents said.

"With the other storms, we lost houses, we lost animals and we lost plantations. Never bodies, " said Lisemene Ferry Raphael, 46, standing near the body of her 12-year-old goddaughter, Lynda Silencieux. The girl, Raphael said, was running with her mother and 7-year-old sister when she fell behind and the waters swept her up.

Around the corner, sisters Jemima and Nadia Jean-Lubin lay dead in a street in front of a store, alongside the body of an unknown man.

No region or community seems to have been spared some devastation.

But the most dramatic scene so far was in Cabaret, where visitors had to wade through waist-high water along Route National No. 1, a main highway, to reach survivors. The water, gushing from the mountains, ran out into the sea.

Once named Duvalierville, the town was envisionsed as the city of the future by former dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. But instead of modern houses to match the 1970s-era government buildings, shanties and ill-constructed homes were built close to the river bed.

Samedi, Tamasha's father, said the rains came with a vengeance at 2:20 a.m. and water barreled through the door.

A 60-year-old cousin yanked Tamasha from her bed and tried to run to higher ground. But he fell, losing hold of the girl as the fierce water pulled her away.

"If she had been with me, she would not have died, " Samedi wailed again and again. "I'm the one whom she calls Papa. I'm the one who is responsible for her. If she were with me, she would not have died."

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