Tropical Storm Jeanne swept north of Haiti during the weekend, drenching the impoverished Caribbean nation of 8 million, inundating cities and sending deadly mudslides through towns and villages. The government put the death toll at 662 and expected it to rise as relief workers recovered bodies and reached areas isolated by the now receding water.
According to the UN peacekeeping forces in Haiti, who were deployed immediately following the disaster, 500 bodies have been recovered in Gonaïves and there are reports of 56 dead in Port de Paix, 18 in Chasolme, 14 in Gros-Morne, 9 in Pilate and 9 in Ennery. The northern part of the country was described by the Primer Minister as a “vast sea” when he visited the area on September 19. Floods and landslides had previously affected Haiti in May this year leaving at least 1,500 people dead and spreading devastation in the southern part of the country.
Relief supplies were starting to reach the worst-hit areas, but the pace was slowed by waterlogged roads and worries about security in a country that is still unstable after an armed revolt ousted ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February.
In Gonaives, a coastal city of 200,000 where large areas were inundated at the weekend, officials said 550 people died, many more were missing and half the population needed immediate assistance with food, water and shelter.
"I lost five people (relatives) in the floods and I don't have anything, no water, no food, nothing," one stunned resident told Reuters.
The news agency reported that water was still waist-high in places and mud on the windows of homes illustrated a desperate tale of rising water that sent people clambering on to their roofs to survive.
Gonaives residents recounted clinging to trees to survive or seeing their relatives die before their eyes.
"The water started to grow high, but we never thought it was going to get so high," 20-year-old Josephine Mesadieu told Reuters. "Then it started to get up to our necks, then I had to swim. My younger brother and sisters could not do so, they died," she said.
Action in Churches Together (ACT) reported that its members in Haiti—Christian Aid (CAID), Diakonie Emergency Aid (DEA), Fédération Protestante d'Haiti (FPH), Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Service Chrétien d'Haiti (SCH)—are assessing the situation. They report that the DEA office in Gonaïves was destroyed by the floods and that the access to the affected area is only possible by air as everything is under water. The ACT CO is in contact with the members in Haiti and an appeal may be forthcoming.
Jeanne is the fourth hurricane (downgraded to a tropical storm) to affect the Caribbean, following close on the heels of hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan, which have wreaked havoc on the Caribbean and parts of the United States in a period of less than one month.