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Panic erupts in flood-ravaged Haiti city
Updated: 2004-09-25 01:36

Survivors who were left with almost nothing after Tropical Storm Jeanne devastated this town buried unclaimed corpses in mud-clogged backyards and attacked aid trucks and even neighbors bringing them food.

"You don't want to make me use this!" one man screamed as he waved a wrench at people carrying cauldrons of food to distribute at a church. The volunteers had come from the port of St. Marc to Gonaives, where flooding from the storm killed at least 1,100 people.

A child of one of the homeless families since Hurricane Jeanne passed through, cleans the floor of the church with his hands in the northern Haitian city of Gonaives September 23, 2004. [Reuters]

Hungry and thirsty survivors — some of whom have lost entire families and everything they own — were losing patience at the slow pace of relief.

Knee-deep mud sucked up animal carcasses and sharp pieces of torn-off zinc roofs, as well as human excrement after the sanitation system was destroyed. Limes have become a hot item in the devastated city of 250,000 because people hold them to their noses to relieve the stench.

Still, some presented opposition when officials tried to continue with the mass burials that began when more than 100 bodies were dumped into a pit at sunset Wednesday.

An Associated Press reporter watched people stop the burial of a truckload of bodies. Some, presumably cemetery workers, demanded money. Others objected that no religious rites accompanied the burials — many Haitians believe a corpse interred without ceremony will wander and commit evil acts.

Haitians fight to get their hands on packets of food thrown from the back of a container in the northeastern town of Gonaives. Tension mounted in northern Haiti where floods killed more than 1,100 people and residents clamored for food while relief workers battled mud and high water to deliver aid. [AFP]

Other protesters wanted officials to recover bodies in waterlogged surrounding fields and to help search for the missing.

The U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti put the number of missing at 1,251. Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the mission, said 1,113 bodies had been recovered and nearly 300,000 were homeless in Haiti's northwest province — with the vast majority of victims in Gonaives.

In Gonaives' seaside slum of Carenage, people were burying bodies of unidentified victims in shallow graves of waterlogged yards — an area from which they could easily be forced up.

At dawn Friday, a group of farmers walked across fields turned to swamps, carrying empty buckets and sacks in hopes of buying something to eat at the market town of Aupotau, where they usually sell their produce — the closest place that isn't devastated, they said.

Two overcrowded tap-taps, Haiti's gaily painted truck-buses, passed them by before they got a ride, indicating the shortage of transportation because of flooding and a gasoline shortage.

Only Antonie Netsede had something to sell — a sack of eggplant she had dug up from the mud that had destroyed her onions and shallots.

"This is the last of what I have. There's no way we can plant anything now in this mess," she said, gesturing toward fields waist-high in mud.

The Roman Catholic church has warned that storm's destruction of crops in the Artibonite region — Haiti's breadbasket — could provoke a food crisis later.

On Thursday, scores of pushing and shoving people jumped on a dump truck carrying relief supplies collected by Rotary Club members from Port-au-Prince, the capital to the south. The truck tried to drive away but the crowd emptied it of food, water, surgical gloves and matches in about 10 minutes.

One man hit people with a metal bar to force his way to the front.

"We collected all these supplies ... But at least it will find its way to people in need," said Rotarian Gaetan Mentor.

This week's floods were made far worse by massive deforestation that left surrounding valleys unable to hold the rain unleashed by some 30 hours of pounding by Jeanne, which has since returned to hurricane strength and is headed toward the northern Bahamas and Florida with winds near 100 mph.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Hurricane Jeanne was centered about 290 miles east of Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, moving toward the west at about nine mph. A hurricane watch was is in effect along the east coast of Florida from Florida City to St. Augustine.

The crisis was only the latest in long-suffering Haiti, a country of 8 million people that has suffered 30 coups d'etats. In February, rebels forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, prompting the United States to send troops who later turned over responsibility to a U.N. peacekeeping force.

The rebels' refusal to disarm has meant ongoing instability.

Rebel leader Wynter Etienne said some in Gonaives were getting "angry and aggressive" because the same people were getting relief each day, while others got nothing.

Poorly maintained roads disintegrated and utilities failed, compounding problems for relief workers.

"Trucking in clean water to Gonaives is a logistical nightmare," said Abby Maxman, local director of the international humanitarian agency CARE.

Chilean-led peacekeepers were ferrying in aid by helicopter. Relief agencies got through what they could over damaged roads. But many people, howling in hunger and anger, were turned away when supplies ran out.

The government's civil protection agency said more than 900 people have been treated for injuries.

Thursday morning, hundreds of people pushed through a wooden barrier to get into Gonaives' sole working clinic, but only one doctor was there to treat them.

The leader of Haiti's U.S.-backed government, interim President Boniface Alexandre, appealed this week for urgent aid, and numerous countries responded.

On Thursday, the U.S. government said it would provide more than $2 million — an increase from $60,000 that some criticized for its paucity.

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