Across Haiti, a Scene of Devastation

Posted in Latin America | 10-Sep-08 | Author: Joshua Partlow| Source: Washington Post

Hurricane Ike tore through the Carribean over the weekend killing at least 61 people in Haiti. Gulf Coast residents from Florida to Texas are eyeing the unpredictable trail of the Category 2 storm as it spirals to the south and west of the Florida Keys.

CABARET, Haiti, Sept. 9 -- Three times in the past month, the river rose toward Andre Jean Compae's cassava garden and three times, he watched it subside. So when his neighbors in this coastal Haitian town began running for safety as the latest rains came, Compae gathered his wife and seven children into one room to wait out the storm. It was nearly 2 in the morning and he had, after all, nowhere else to go.

"Now I have nothing left," he said.

The floodwaters from Hurricane Ike, the fourth tropical storm to ravage the Caribbean in less than a month, gouged out a swath of the riverbank, downed power lines, ripped up paved roads and swept away several homes, including Compae's, in this village outside of Port-au-Prince, the capital. Compae and his family escaped out a back door when the waters began washing through their house.

Caribbean nations have borne the brunt of the recent hurricanes, and nowhere more so than Haiti, the impoverished island nation with few resources to defend itself. The scene of calamity in Compae's neighborhood in Cabaret, where more than 40 people were killed in the storm, is replicated across wide expanses of the country, according to officials organizing the humanitarian relief effort.

"I have never seen a hurricane like this," Compae said, holding a machete by his side as he watched the water roil past the place where his house used to stand. "There is nothing even to repair."

The howling storm pushed on to Cuba on Tuesday, where it forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and killed at least four people. About 1.2 million people -- more than a tenth of Cuba's population, were forced to seek refuge.

State television said reservoir levels in the western Cuban province of Pinar del Rio were dangerously close to overflowing and flooding nearby communities and roads, the Associated Press reported.

Many in the region, where most of Cuba's famed tobacco is grown, were still without power and water from an earlier storm, the monstrous Hurricane Gustav, which struck Aug. 30. That storm damaged 100,000 homes and caused billions of dollars in damage, but didn't kill anyone because of massive evacuations.

Forecasters said Ike could now strengthen into a ominous Category 3 storm before slamming into Texas or Mexico this weekend.

Before Ike, which had been a Category 4 hurricane, struck Haiti on Sunday, the island was battered by storms Hanna, Gustav and Fay, all within the past month. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne caused landslides that killed more than 2,000 people in Gonaives, Haiti's fourth-largest city. All told, hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes by the latest storm to hit Haiti. Estimates of the death toll range widely, from about 300 people to more than 500, but lack of access to the hardest-hit areas makes it difficult to know for sure. The already decrepit road network connecting the major cities and coastal towns has become impassable, aid workers say.

The worst devastation in Haiti is found in Gonaives, a city of more than 100,000 people along the northwestern coast. Much of the city remains submerged. Aid workers said 70,000 people had checked into official shelters and a similar number have taken refuge in makeshift ones or fled to the mountains.

Guirlene Frederique, a member of a UNICEF emergency team who worked in Gonaives, estimated that 60 percent of the city remained flooded Tuesday, some of it in water chest-deep. Electricity, beyond generators, is nonexistent, she said. She saw fights break out among hungry people grasping for food at the distribution centers.

"The whole town of Gonaives has to be rebuilt," said Myrta Kaulard, a representative of the U.N. World Food Program in Haiti. "It's really an enormous challenge that will continue."

U.S. Marines and members of the U.S. Coast Guard, along with U.N. workers, delivered food and water to the stricken area by boat and helicopter, U.N. officials in Haiti said. An American Navy ship, the USS Kearsarge, arrived Monday in Port-au-Prince carrying helicopters and boats to help stem the humanitarian crisis.

Relief workers have stockpiled enough food to assist half a million people for a month, but downed bridges and washed-out roads have often blocked its delivery. Louis Vigneault, another UNICEF official in Haiti, said some residents of Gonaives spent days on their rooftops waiting for rescue.

"It is impossible to get there, and it is impossible for the people to get out of there," Kaulard said. "These seven bridges that have collapsed have cut the country in slices like a sausage, and it's really impossible to use the road network. . . . The challenge that we will have to face is how to continue supplying without roads."

Rescue crews said that they have made 46 cargo flights in six days and have transported close to 70 tons of supplies to Haitian storm victims, but that they still need more helicopters and boats.

The storms have struck a country already burdened by political strife and rampant poverty; the unemployment rate is 80 percent.

On Tuesday in Cabaret, outside of Port-au-Prince, throngs of people lined streets that pass wrecked houses and fields of flattened plantain trees, watching as bulldozers removed the rubble.

Only a small, wrecked portion of Marie Solage Aristild's two-story, five-bedroom house, which she shared with seven relatives -- remained standing Tuesday. She had lived in it for more than 20 years.

Aristild, her family and neighbors evacuated to higher ground before the storm hit and returned the next day to find their lives undone. Aristild, 41, recalled standing with both hands on her head staring at the empty space and brown water rushing below. "You can't do nothing, just turn to God and see what God can do," she said.