Scores die in Haiti as Jeanne strikes

Tropical Storm Jeanne brought raging floodwaters to Haiti, killing at least 90 people in the battered nation and leaving dozens of Haitian families huddled on rooftops as the storm pushed further out into the open seas, officials said.

Floods tore through the north-western coastal town of Gonaives and surrounding areas, covering crops and turning roads into rivers.

United States-backed interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and his interior minister toured the area in a United Nations truck on Sunday, but were not able to reach many areas because of washed-out roads.

“We don’t know how many dead there are,” Latortue said. “2004 has been a terrible year.”

Catholic humanitarian agency Caritas Internationalis said its workers picked up 62 bodies in pick-up trucks and counted another 18 at a morgue in Gonaives alone, said Reverend Venel Suffrard, the Vatican-based organisation’s director in the town.
Suffrard said he expected the toll to rise.

The floods killed another 10 people in other parts of the country, mostly in the north-west, said Dieufort Deslorges, a spokesperson for the Haitian Interior Ministry.

A World Health Organisation worker said he had toured parts of downtown Gonaives and saw people pushing wooden carts filled with cadavers.

“There is no life left in the centre of town,” UN health worker Pierre Adam said.

The deaths came four months after floods killed more than 3 000 people on the Haitian-Dominican border. In February, a three-week rebellion ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and left about 300 dead.

Several people were reported missing and feared dead. Unlike the Dominican Republic, much of Haiti is deforested and unable to hold back floodwaters.

Residents said the floods caught the town by surprise on Saturday night. Jean-Baptiste Agilus, a 46-year-old teacher, said he watched the deluge engulf houses in his neighbourhood, filling some with 4m of water.

Agilus said he saw his neighbour running from his house, saying his wife and two children, ages 12 and 15, were swept away in the rising waters.

“The water rushed into their home, all the homes in the neighbourhood,” he said. “It destroyed everything.”

Agilus said he would stay at a friend’s house and heard others say they would sleep on the street.

Many families, though, remained on their flat concrete rooftops, surrounded by bundles of belongings, mostly clothing.

Argentinean troops, part of a UN mission and responsible for patrolling Gonaives, treated at least 150 injuries, mostly bad cuts on feet and legs that required stitches, said Lieutenant Commander Emilio Vera, a spokesperson. Many people had stepped on shards of glass or pieces of metal left underwater by the force of the flood waters, he said.

Four suffered broken bones and were evacuated by helicopter to the capital, about 100km south-east of Gonaives, Vera said.

No doctors staffed Gonaives’s main hospital, but it was being used as a morgue.

The Argentinean base was flooded except for a helicopter landing zone on higher ground.

The commander of the Argentinean brigade, Lieutenant Colonel Santiago Ferreyra, said he drove back from the town of Ennery, about 28km north of Gonaives, after celebrating Chile’s Independence Day on Saturday night with Chilean troops stationed there.

He said all houses were destroyed along the way and he saw at least 10 bodies floating.

“There are a lot more that we haven’t seen yet,” Ferreyra said. “A lot of people are dead everywhere, it’s just awful. It’s not just Gonaives, it’s the suburbs.”

Authorities said they had not been able to reach the seaside shantytown of Raboteau—used by rebels during the uprising as their headquarters—and other neighbourhoods.

Latortue declared Gonaives a disaster area and called on the international community to provide immediate humanitarian aid. More than 3 000 UN peacekeeping troops are in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country with a population of eight million.

The erratic storm lashed Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Friday and Saturday, drenching northern Hispaniola and triggering flash floods.

The storm has been blamed for at least 100 deaths. Seven died in neighbouring Dominican Republic and a third death was reported in Puerto Rico on Sunday.

Much of Gonaives was still under waist-deep water on Sunday—2m deep in some places—and aid workers were having trouble evacuating all the people in need, Deslorges said.

UN peacekeeping troops were evacuating the injured to a former university, said Mamie Ward, a UN mission spokesperson.

“Now the primary concern is getting people to a safe place,” she said.

Jeanne lost strength even as it drove thousands of Dominicans from their homes late on Friday. But a few hours after being downgraded to a tropical depression, it strengthened again on Saturday into a tropical storm with lashing winds.

The storm stalled over the Dominican Republic after coming ashore on Thursday as a hurricane, with winds near 130kph. It had raged through Puerto Rico on Wednesday, dumping up to 1m of rain, flooding hundreds of homes and downing power lines.

Jeanne headed into open seas on Sunday and didn’t appear likely to hit the storm-battered south-eastern United States. It was expected to turn south over the next two days and head back out into the Atlantic, away from US states that have been battered by three major storms already this season.

At 5am (9am GMT), Jeanne was 520km east of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, moving northward near 13kph. Storm-force winds strengthened to 95kph and stretched up to 165km from its centre.

US President George Bush declared the US territory of Puerto Rico a disaster zone on Friday, two days after Jeanne tore through the island. Many were without running water and electricity for a fifth day on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Karl posed no immediate threat to land, forecasters said. Its sustained winds strengthened to category-four force near 217kph and were expected to get even stronger on Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Centre.

Separately, Tropical Depression 13 formed far out in the Atlantic.—Sapa-AP

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