Marooned, desperate after storm

(This story was originally published September 5, 2008.)

GONAIVES, Haiti -- Her third day without food or water, Fleurie Benita waded through the calf-high mud, balancing her life's possessions on her head, uncertain of what to do next, or what will come next.

The mother of four recalled the blinding sheets of rain and the sound of death knocking at her front door. Then her desperate decision.

"I grabbed the children and ran. We ran to a neighbor's house, " said Benita, 24, who like so many here credit the last-minute decision to brave Tropical Storm Hanna's pounding downpour for saving her life. "The water didn't even leave me a bed to sleep in. Even the pots and pans were washed away."

After three days of relentless rains from Hanna, the sun finally pierced the clouds Thursday in this low-lying city. And residents began to survey the damage.

Hanna has become the deadliest storm of the 2008 hurricane season. It killed 136 people in Haiti, including 102 from the Artibonite region, where Gonaives is located, said Abel Nazaire of Haiti's civil protection bureau.

The slightest rains can trigger flash floods and mudslides in Gonaives, where the mountains have been deforested to make charcoal. Three rivers flow down the mountain, all aiming their streams at the town.

The region has been basically cut off from the rest of the country since the storm struck Monday evening. Many residents remained hunkered down on rooftops, while others waded through waist-and knee-deep rivers of mud, passing flooded-out homes and buses tossed on their sides.

Some tried to salvage what was left of their lives, shoveling through the bed of mud in hopes of finding a pot, a shirt, even a shoe. Those who did rinsed them off in water from a nearby muddy canal, where dead animals floated.

Haitian Konpa singer Gracia Delva visited the city Thursday and joined residents in their pleas for help. Sen. Youri Latortue, who represents the region, said he planned to ask the government for assistance.

"It is very difficult, " he said of the situation as he prepared to board a U.N. helicopter back to Port-au-Prince, the capital. "We can have hurricanes, but when we don't have structures it is very difficult."


Food and other assistance were not coming fast enough, turning cries for help into anger as pleas for potable water and government assistance go unanswered. Despite the promises of aid from some the international organizations, very little has arrived, residents say.

With bridges to the north and south collapsed, and major roads into the city cut off by swampy lakes, it was practically impossible to get here by road.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission managed to fly in aid workers and others on Thursday to survey the needs, but flooding throughout the city still made it a daunting task. From the air, Gonaives looked like a city under mud. Homes were nearly submerged, with only the rusted tin roofs visible in some cases. Residents were trapped on rooftops, some spreading out pants, shirts dresses and other clothing to dry.

The Argentina U.N. contingent, based in the city, provided 660 gallons of water and 2,000 rations of food as well as evacuated about 400 people. The U.S. plans to distribute 5,000 hygiene kits in coming days, and is seeking emergency funding to assist Haiti with the crisis. But to those who remained marooned with no food for three days, help was slow in coming.

"We can't live in this situation, " said Baptiste Jean, 28. "We don't have a country. We don't have a president. The city is finished."

"We didn't just lose our house. The house was eliminated, " Phillipe Joseph, 38, added. "The entire family -- mother, father, sister, child -- is homeless. But thank God, they are here."

He called on the government to do more. "It has a lot of work to do because after Jeanne, nothing was done. Just government waste. I would hope after this one they would take their responsibility and make sure the money and aid get to the poor people, " he said.

Tropical Storm Jeanne, which also unleashed a wall of water on Gonaives, was blamed for more than 3,000 deaths in Haiti in 2004.


In the days since Hanna, tens of thousands have gone to shelters -- at least 48,000 from Gonaives and the surrounding area. But more, fearing looters, continue to sleep on roofs where they can keep a close eye on what's left of their homes.

Others have simply taken to walking the streets, begging for everything from food to clothes, and sleeping where they can. Still others have headed for the barren mountains, where they plan to wait out the next two storms -- Ike and Josephine.

"I have nowhere to sleep, " said Marie-Josette Moise, 41, a mother of seven, who scrambled onto a rooftop, climbing six flights of stairs in the middle of the storm.

Some were scared.

"We are already dead, " said Mackento Jacques, 13, when asked about Ike, which could affect Haiti this weekend. "There is nothing we can do."

Cassandre Loisy, 23, has not seen her 3-year-old daughter Cassandrley since she was forced to send the girl to stay with a neighbor when Hanna began to blow through. On Thursday, the living room of their green and white house was knee-deep in mud. Sewage seeped through the front door.

"We didn't think the rains were going to come like that, " she said. "We were so confused, we only had enough time to grab our passports and run."

To escape crashing flood waters, Loisy and other family members, including her 54-year-old mother, first scaled their front balcony, and then a seven-foot wall guarding their front door.

A nursing student, she said her entire tuition was swallowed by the storm. Four years ago during Tropical Storm Jeanne, the family suffered an even greater loss: Her 5-year-old nephew Richkaard Pierre was killed.

Richkaard's mother, Raymond Mulatre, said Hanna will not be soon forgotten.

"I don't know what we are going to do, " she said. "We don't have money, we don't have anywhere to go."