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Haiti in 'Total Desperation' After Storm

Relief Officials Try to Prevent Disease; Crowds Fight for Food

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 28, 2004; Page A20

GONAIVES, Haiti, Sept. 26 -- Louisen Louis, 30, walked Monday in the middle of a street that resembled a small river with brown rivulets and waves. He wore sandals and had a cut on one of his big toes.

As he searched for drinking water, holding an empty water jug on his head, Louis described the torrent of mud that descended upon the city 10 days ago, destroying buildings and burying people in its path. The flooding was a result of Tropical Storm Jeanne, which swept across Haiti on Sept. 18, heading west toward the United States.

U.N. peacekeepers from Brazil attempt to control a crowd seeking food at a distribution center in Gonaives, Haiti. (Daniel Aguilar -- Reuters)

"At three in the afternoon, the reports said there was no threat," said Louis, recalling the flood. "At five o'clock, the rain did not stop and the water was getting higher. At the same time, nobody panicked. We were hearing on the radio that other places were flooded."

But an hour later a wall of muddy water slid from the mountain whose forests had been stripped to provide wood for cooking fuel. Thick, brown water poured into town, trapping thousands. Even those who could swim could not navigate the thick mud.

That was when people started dying. "In the morning, I started seeing the bodies," Louis said.

The storm caused massive mudslides in Gonaives, destroyed houses and wrecked the infrastructure of this city of 250,000. More than 1,300 people were killed; many of the bodies are still lying in the muddy streets. Officials said almost 1,000 are missing.

Louis, a law student, walked in the water that filled the streets even though he knew it was contaminated. He lifted his foot to show the cut in his toe. "I'm trying to take precaution with socks," he said.

Throughout the city and in other flooded parts of the country, U.N. and Haitian authorities struggled Monday to prevent the outbreak of disease.

"The whole sewage system in Gonaives collapsed," said Ricardo Mena, head of the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination team in Gonaives. "Water is still in the streets, getting very, very contaminated. The possibility of spreading disease is very high. The fear of triggering epidemics like malaria is high."

Jean-Claude Mubalama, health and nutrition officer for UNICEF, toured 14 shelters crowded with 8,800 homeless people. "There is no sanitation," Mubalama said. "There are lots of chances for infection. People don't have any food. Also kids are sick with fever and diarrhea. I have never seen a disaster like this."

Attacks by armed gangs in the city have slowed efforts to distribute food and water, officials said. Men carrying guns and people with machetes have ambushed government trucks carrying food.

On Monday, Argentine troops, part of a 3,000-member multinational U.N. peacekeeping force, fired warning shots into the air to keep back people fighting for food at a distribution center.

U.N. peacekeepers came to Haiti in June, taking over from a U.S. military mission that arrived in February during the rebellion that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Officials said there were about 800 troops in Gonaives, but that they needed twice as many troops in the aftermath of the floods.

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