/ 5 September 2008

Haiti drowns as another fierce storm looms

Corpses surfaced in the muddy wreckage of the sodden Haitian city of Gonaives on Friday as flood waters receded after Tropical Storm Hanna, raising the known death toll to 137.

But the break in the weather is expected to be short — Hurricane Ike, now a category-three storm — could sideswipe Haiti this weekend, even as international aid groups struggle to reach thousands of victims marooned without food or drinking water.

”I am worried because the soil is completely impregnated with water and there is no way for the rivers to take more water,” said Max Cocsi, who directs Belgium’s mission in Haiti of Médecins sans Frontières. ”We don’t need a hurricane — a storm would be enough.”

Cocsi, who arrived in Gonaives on Thursday, said that no one knows how many have been killed. The focus now is on reaching the living, not recovering bodies.

Late on Thursday, a few blocks from where United Nations peacekeeping troops stopped to dish out cooked rice from their own food supplies to a small crowd of hungry orphans, a woman’s corpse in a floral dress was floating in a submerged intersection.

”I haven’t eaten since Monday,” Srita Omiscar (12) said as she waited in line with about 50 others.

Earlier in the day, a convoy rumbled out of the UN base on the edge of Gonaives toward the city, carrying some of the first food aid since Hanna struck four days ago. Hungry children at three orphanages were waiting for the canvas-topped trucks, loaded with warm pots of rice and beans and towing giant tanks of drinking water.

The trucks didn’t make it. The convoy crept over mud-caked, semi-paved roads past closed stores, overturned buses and women wading in water up to their knees with plastic tubs on their heads.

After about 45 minutes, the half-dozen trucks ground to a halt. UN peacekeepers wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests jumped out while others stood guard with assault rifles. It was impossible to drive further — floods had split the asphalt, and water ran through the 3m-wide gap.

The children — like tens of thousands more in this increasingly desperate city — went another day without food.

Haiti’s government has few resources to help. Rescue convoys have been blocked by flood waters, although the UN World Food Programme said on Thursday it was sending a food-laden boat to Gonaives from the capital, Port-au-Prince, and would set up a base in the stricken city.

At least 137 people died when Hanna struck Haiti, 102 of them in Gonaives and its surroundings, officials said. About 250 000 people are affected in the Gonaives region and 54 000 people are living in shelters across the country, according to government estimates. The storm also killed at least two people in Puerto Rico.

Gonaives — a collection of concrete buildings, run-down shacks and plazas with dilapidated fountains — lies in a flat river plain between the ocean and deforested mountains that run with mud even in light rains. Hanna swirled over Haiti for four days, dumping vast amounts of water, blowing down fruit trees and ruining stores of food.

Many houses were torn apart. Families huddled on rooftops, their possessions laid out to dry. Overturned cars were everywhere, and televisions floated in the brown water.

In the capital, US embassy spokesperson Mari Tolliver said $250 000 in relief supplies arrived in Haiti on Thursday, including jugs of drinking water, and would be sent to Gonaives by boat or plane.

Hurricane Ike
Meanwhile, fierce Hurricane Ike weakened slightly as it charged across the Atlantic on Friday and took aim at south Florida while Tropical Storm Hanna was set to crash ashore in the Carolinas.

Hanna was not expected to be anything more than a minimal category-one hurricane when it reached the US East Coast somewhere near the North Carolina and South Carolina border early on Saturday, the US National Hurricane Centre said.

Nevertheless, authorities declared states of emergency, North Carolina ordered up a voluntary evacuation on the fragile Outer Banks, and coastal campgrounds were shut as the eighth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season pulled away from the 700 far-flung islands of the Bahamas.

Ike was far more threatening. An extremely dangerous category-four hurricane on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale on Thursday, it weakened a notch to a category three overnight with top sustained winds of 205km/h, the Miami-based hurricane centre said.

By 9am GMT, it was spinning about 740km north of the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, still days away from reaching any land. Some further weakening was possible but the hurricane centre said Ike was expected to remain a ”major” storm of category three or higher.

The hurricane’s track was riddled with uncertainty, but one possibility was for it to slam ashore near the heavily populated Miami area in south Florida as a ferociously destructive category-four hurricane.

A category-four hurricane strike on Miami would be a hugely costly disaster because of the billions of dollars of vulnerable real estate in low-lying islands like Miami Beach and along the coast of the Florida peninsula. Power would likely be out for millions of people for an extended time.

Battering trio
Tropical Storm Josephine churned weakly in Ike’s wake across the Atlantic, boasting 85km/h winds and located about 1 065km west of the Cape Verde Islands.

The trio of Atlantic storms followed Hurricane Gustav’s rampage through the Caribbean to Louisiana, where it came ashore on Monday west of New Orleans, largely sparing the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

The flurry underscored predictions for an unusually busy six-month hurricane season. An average season has 10 tropical storms, of which six strengthen into hurricanes with top sustained winds of at least 119km/h. Josephine was already this year’s 10th, and the statistical September 10 peak of the storm season still lies ahead.

Hanna was the third deadly storm to strike Haiti in less than a month. Gustav previously killed at least 75 people and Tropical Storm Fay killed more than 50.

Haiti President Rene Preval called the situation ”catastrophic”, comparing it to floods from Tropical Storm Jeanne in September 2004 that killed more than 3 000 people around Gonaives.

By noon GMT on Friday, Hanna was 185km east of Melbourne, Florida, or 680km south of Wilmington, North Carolina. It was moving to the north-west at a brisk 29km/h with top winds of 100km/h.

”Only slight strengthening is forecast prior to landfall, although it is still possible for Hanna to become a hurricane,” the hurricane centre said.

As dawn broke, winds from Hanna began to roil the ocean off North and South Carolina with 3,9m waves. Sunny skies gave way to increasing clouds on North Carolina’s Outer Banks where residents tested power generators and tied down trash cans and beach chairs.

Beaches were to close early Friday afternoon. The storm was expected to strike at high tide in many areas but a storm surge of less than 1,5m was predicted. This could produce minor to moderate coastal flooding, the weather service said. — Sapa-AP, Reuters