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Haiti death toll passes 700 after storm
Updated: 2004-09-22 08:40

The death toll across Haiti from the weekend deluges brought by Tropical Storm Jeanne rose to more than 700 Tuesday, with about 600 of them in Gonaives, and officials said they expected to find more dead and estimated tens of thousands of people were homeless.

Waterlines up to 10 feet high on Gonaives' buildings marked the worst of the storm that sent water gushing down denuded hills, destroying homes and crops in the Artibonite region that is Haiti's breadbasket.

The northern Haitian city of Gonaives is seen flooded on September 19, 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne passed through.[Reuters]

Floodwaters receded, but half of Haiti's third-largest city was still swamped with contaminated water up to two feet deep four days after Jeanne passed. Not a house in the city of 250,000 people escaped damage. The homeless sloshed through the streets carrying belongings on their heads, while people with houses that still had roofs tried to dry scavenged clothes.

"We're going to start burying people in mass graves," said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti. Some victims were buried Monday.

Flies buzzed around bloated corpses piled high at the city's three morgues, where the electricity was off as temperatures reached into the 90s.

Only about 30 of the 250 bodies at the morgue of the flood-damaged General Hospital hade been identified, said Dr. Daniel Rubens of the International Red Cross. Many of the dead there were children.

"I lost my kids and there's nothing I can do," said Jean Estimable, whose 2-year-old daughter was killed and another of his five children was missing and presumed dead.

Dieufort Deslorges, spokesman for the civil protection agency, said he expected the death toll to rise as reports came in from outlying villages and estimated a quarter million Haitians had been made homeless.

Rescue workers reported recovering 691 bodies by Tuesday night — about 600 of them in Gonaives and more than 40 in northern Port-de-Paix, Deslorges said. In addition, at least 51 were recovered in other areas.

But Deslorges said there were dozens more dead still unaccounted for, which would bring the toll past 700. "It appears many were swept away to the sea, there are bodies still buried in mud and rubble, or floating in water," he said.

He said relief workers were operating under "extremely difficult conditions: no electricity, all landline telephone service is cut, cell phones work very badly and then there's no power to recharge them."

Gonaives was blacked-out Tuesday night. Only a handful of buildings were lit and hotels packed with displaced people were in darkness because they had run out of fuel for generators.

More than 1,000 people were missing, said Raoul Elysee, head of the Haitian Red Cross, which was trying desperately to find doctors to help. The international aid group CARE said 85 of its 200 workers in Gonaives were unaccounted for.

"It's really catastrophic. We're still discovering bodies," said Francoise Gruloos of the U.N. Children's Fund.

The aid group Food for the Poor said the main road north from Gonaives was made impassable by the storm — it was unclear whether from mudslides or debris — and there were fears that hundreds of possible flood victims may be out of reach.

Brazilian and Jordanian troops in the U.N. peacekeeping mission sent to stabilize Haiti after rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February struggled to help the needy as aid workers ferried supplies of water and food to victims.

CARE spokesman Rick Perera said the agency had about 660 tons of dry food in Gonaives, including corn-soy blend, dried lentils and cooking oil and was trying to set up distribution points.

Police said aid vehicles were being waylaid by mobs on the outskirts of Gonaives. One truck that made it to City Hall in the town center was swarmed by people who began throwing its load of bagged water into the crowd, setting off a melee. The driver finally sped off, bouncing people off the truck.

Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Haiti's interim president, Boniface Alexandre, pleaded for help.

"In the face of this tragedy ... I appeal urgently for the solidarity of the international community so it may once again support the government in the framework of emergency assistance," he said.

Several nations were sending aid including $1.8 million from the European Union and $1 million and rescue supplies from Venezuela. The U.S. Embassy announced $60,000 in immediate relief aid Monday, drawing criticism from Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., who called it "a drop in the bucket."

Floods are particularly devastating in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, because it is almost completely deforested, leaving few roots to hold back rushing waters or mudslides. Most of the trees have been chopped down to make charcoal for cooking.

Jeanne came four months after devastating floods along Haiti's southern border with the Dominican Republic. Some 1,700 bodies were recovered and 1,600 more were presumed dead.

Gonaives also suffered fighting during the February rebellion that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and left an estimated 300 dead.

The storm entered the Caribbean last week, killing seven people in Puerto Rico before the hurricane hit the Dominican Republic, killing at least 19, including 12 who drowned Monday in swollen rivers. The overall death toll was 717.

On Tuesday, Jeanne was posing no threat to land, about 515 miles east of Great Abaco island in the Bahamas.

Also out in the open Atlantic was Hurricane Karl, 990 miles from the Caribbean's Leeward islands, and Tropical Storm Lisa, which was about 1,005 miles northeast of the Leeward Islands.

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