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.
"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.
Food has been flown to Gonaives and shipped in by truck from Port-au-Prince, the capital, 70 miles to the south. But the overland trek is dangerous. The last part of the journey along the bumpy highway north is covered by a lake that is five feet deep, where boys work as guides to keep drivers on the road. Several trucks along the road were overturned on Monday. Many cars had stalled in the muddy water.
One relief truck that came in Sunday night was looted. The drivers fired warning shots into the air. "It's total desperation," said Kate Donovan, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, who was riding in the truck. "You can't just yell at them: 'Go get a job!' People are in dire straits. We have to get help to them now. There is no time to wait."
By Monday, U.N. humanitarian agencies and the relief agencies working with them had handed out more than 172 tons of food, including rice and lentils, said Anne Poulsen, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, according to Reuters.
The food given out so far would be enough for 70,000 families -- of five people each -- for a day, she said.
Mena said the United Nations increased the number of food distribution sites from two to four on Monday. The goal was to set up 10 sites throughout the city by the end of the week to ease the tensions caused by people rioting and climbing fences to get to food. At one point, officials decided food would be distributed only to women, angering men in the crowds.
"It was agreed food would be only given to women because they will go home and cook for all the family," said a situation report tacked on the wall at a local university, which has been transformed into a relief coordination center, where guards with rifles line the rooftops and crowds press against the gates.
On another wall at the university, the list of the dead and missing was growing. Written in red marker, the list counted 607 dead in Gonaives; 200 dead in Passe Reine; 108 dead in the First Section of Pont Tamarin; 50 dead in Labanle; 248 dead in Poteaux; 5 dead in Ans Roge; 40 dead in Gros-Morne; 17 dead in Terre Neuve. The total number dead was 1,368. The total number missing was 901.
But officials said those numbers would grow as more bodies were dug out of the mud.
Elsewhere in Haiti, there was more devastation. On the road to Cap-Haitien, a city about 40 miles north of Gonaives, most of the houses and fields were swept away. Flooding also destroyed houses and fields in Mapou. The road to Port-au-Paix was accessible only to Gros-Morne, where houses and fields have been devastated.
On "one side of the road, houses still exist," a government report said. "At the other side, the land of the former buildings is completely empty. The population mentioned that one big wave hit the village for only a few minutes and caused all the damage."
Not far from where Louisen Louis walked, Wilson Santius, 12, waded through the water wearing a red skirt pinned around his tiny waist. He pressed his face against a car window. On his left cheek was a faded tattoo. He held an orange bucket for water on his shoulder. His family, he said, had lost everything but their lives in the flood.
He was not ashamed to be wearing the skirt. He looked down and explained that someone had given it to him. He had no shirt. He wore a Nike shoe on his right foot and a sandal on his left. At his home, he said, everything was destroyed.
On a crowded street nearby, pink containers of hair moisturizer and toothbrushes were for sale at a market. But there was little food.
Louisa Rene, 47, sifted through a pile of dirty packages of spaghetti. The flood had turned over the stockpile of pasta in a market and the packages spilled into the street. Now, hungry people were picking through the dirty pasta to find food to boil.
"I have five kids to feed," said Rene, who wore a pink shirt. Her pierced ears had no earrings. She said she normally sold salt, but the salt mine was destroyed. She had not been able to get food at the distribution sites.
"Things are very hard. It is impossible to get food because there is a lot of pushing," she said. "Sometimes I fail. So now I am here." Just then a boy came and snatched a package of spaghetti from a woman who was bent over the packages. The woman yelled and the boy ran away.