The water slammed into Bernard Sanozier's little house at 2 a.m. Monday, loud and furious as an avalanche, throwing Sanozier and his wife out of their bed. Over the thunderous roar and in water up to his neck, he said he yelled to his five children.
"I tried to save my wife, but I couldn't get to her," Sanozier said, choosing his words slowly and deliberately, betraying no emotion. "My kids were screaming, 'Daddy! Daddy!' The door was open and they were carried out. I watched them all drown right in front of me."
Counting the twins his pregnant wife was carrying, Sanozier said he lost eight family members in the floods that ravaged this poor border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which officials said may have killed more than 1,300 people. On Saturday, Sanozier stood on the empty spot where his house used to be, wearing a donated New York Yankees cap and plastic sandals, and talked about the wall of water that cost him everything but his life.
"A storm came," he said. "It just happens."
In hospital wards and wasted villages, those lucky enough to have survived Haiti's latest catastrophe spoke with similar fatalism about life in a land that has endured crushing poverty, violence, corruption, floods, mudslides, hurricanes and disease since it won independence from France 200 years ago.
"My wife told me, 'God gave you these children and He took them away. If we are meant to have more children, we will,' " said Bienaime Gaspard, who lost three daughters, ages 6, 4 and 3, when the floodwaters virtually erased his town, Mapou, from the map.
Gaspard spoke in a hospital ward in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where his son, Wilson, 14, was recovering from severe cuts to his head, neck and shoulders. Gaspard said he didn't know whether his wife and son had survived until the morning after the flood, when he awoke tangled in a mango tree and was rescued by a neighbor.
The Haitian Civil Protection bureau on Saturday put the country's total number of dead and missing at 592, but the statistics were preliminary and still being compiled. In the Dominican Republic, the National Emergencies Commission reported 379 confirmed dead and 352 people missing, mostly around the town of Jimani, just across the Haitian border.
In Haiti, which is nearly bankrupt and barely has a functioning government, workers attempted to count bodies that had been lost down remote, washed-out roads. The interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, has been struggling to rebuild the institutions of education, health, justice and other basic services, shattered during the government of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled the country in the face of an armed insurrection in February.
Relief officials said on Saturday there was growing fear of epidemics in affected areas. A moderate earthquake struck the disaster zone on Saturday; there was no reported damage, but the event seemed to add punctuation to Haiti's long list of disasters. In places like this ravaged town, everyone knew the punctuation was not a period, but a comma connecting this tragedy to others they said were certain to come.
"We haven't even reached the rainy season yet; so this is just the appetizer before the main course," said Gerard Zetrenne, mayor of this battered town, where the toll of dead and missing stands at 166 and rising. "This town is done. This town is finished."
Along with Mapou, just to the south, this town about 30 miles east of the capital was among the hardest hit by the floods. But that was not immediately obvious while landing here in a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter, part of a joint relief operation with the Canadian military. Foreign military forces that were helping the country stabilize after Aristide's chaotic departure were pressed into disaster duty.
From the air, Fond Verettes looked like a few small shacks lining either side of a vast, dry riverbed at least 100 yards wide. But the magnitude of the devastation was clear when residents explained that the riverbed wasn't there a week ago. It had been the site of a busy little tropical village of houses and shops with gardens, grass, trees and stands of corn.
When the rain water came crashing down steep hillsides, there was no escape. The terrain had been mostly stripped of trees, so the water blasted through town and obliterated everything in its path. The rush of water washed away hundreds of structures and gouged out 15 or 20 feet of topsoil. When the rains stopped, the sun baked the earth. By Saturday, the area where 15,000 people once lived was a vast field of rocks scrubbed by the water and bleached by the sun until they were as smooth and white as old bones in the desert.
Only a few structures still stood in the water's path, including the Complex Inn Guest House, whose painted ads for Prestige Beer could still be seen above the rocks that didn't quite demolish the building. Thousands of townspeople gathered around that spot Saturday as helicopters hauled in loads of rice donated by the U.N. World Food Program.
Sgt. Martinez Francois, a U.S. Marine reservist, was in a U.S.-Canadian military contingent in town to help ensure orderly distribution of the food. Francois said he was born in Haiti but moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was 10. He said he was amazed, but not surprised, by the pragmatic attitude toward disaster among survivors in Fond Verettes; it was the same kind of strength he recognizes in his parents.
"These people expect this; it's just another obstacle, and they adjust to it very easily," Francois said. "But I look at all this and I wonder, if you put me in the same situation as these people, could I survive? I'm not sure. I'm too used to the good life in New York."
At the Hospital Francois de Sales in Port-au-Prince, Julienne Saintima, 22, lay under a thin blue sheet late Friday night, her body battered and her knee wrapped in gauze. Like Wilson Gaspard, she was airlifted out of Mapou on a U.S. military helicopter and brought to the hospital for treatment. She stared blankly and grimaced from pain that seemed both physical and emotional.
She said she remembered going to bed last Sunday at 10 p.m. with her sons, Samson, 4, and Luckson, 2, tucked in with her. She remembered nothing after that until the next day after sunrise, when she regained consciousness with her arms locked around a large palm tree in waist-deep water. Her children have not been found.
"People have lost kids before, they have lost husbands and wives, and they go on," she said, her eyes wide and aching and searching. "So I will do my best to go on."