Workers struggle to aid Haitian, Dominican flood victims
Disease feared as death toll continues to rise
MAPOU, Haiti -- Aid workers dragged bodies from floodwaters yesterday and handed out food and fresh water to survivors who said children appear to have been the biggest loss from flash floods and mudslides that cascaded down denuded mountains, submerging half this farming town.
But the emergency crews were working against time, warning of a possible epidemic if they do not quickly recover most of the bodies in Mapou and the south-central part of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
They feared contamination of the underground water supply, which people here access through wells. Dominican officials said they plan to use planes to spray disinfectant over the border town of Jimani to keep decomposing bodies from spreading disease.
"It's horrific. People are finding people in very odd and unreachable places -- even hanging from the tops of trees," said Sheyla Biamby of Catholic Relief Services in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital.
The flooding has left hundreds dead and thousands homeless, and international aid organizations warned of the possibility of finding many more hungry survivors and decaying bodies in remote areas. US-led troops packed inflatable dinghies to reach outlying villages.
"The magnitude of the disaster is much worse than we expected with many, many more people affected," said Guy Gavreau, director of the UN World Food Program in Haiti.
French troops rushed yesterday to Jimani, erecting tents for the homeless and burying 23 bodies recovered from the banks of a saltwater lake crawling with crocodiles.
Across the border in Mapou, International Committee of the Red Cross workers pulled seven decomposing bodies from an area of submerged homes where only the tops of palm trees showed above water and mud. They placed the corpses in body bags and buried them in higher ground.
Half the homes in Mapou -- some 1,300 -- have been destroyed, Biamby said.
"We are trying to get a count but we estimate about a thousand dead" just among the 3,500 people of Mapou, said US Lieutenant Colonel Duane Perry, who commanded Marines as they ferried emergency supplies and aid workers in helicopters yesterday.
The aid workers treated people with broken limbs and gashes from aluminum roofs that broke off when the torrents of water descended Monday after three days of heavy rains.
Hundreds gathered in Mapou as World Food Program workers handed out bags of rice and beans and bottles of water -- meant to provide their first meal since Monday, though each family got only two quarts of water to quench their thirst and cook their rice and beans.
In the crowd was Jean-Claude Germain, a 25-year-old farmer who said he and his wife escaped the floods "by the grace of God."
"I had to watch everything I love and own washed away by the waters, but I never even saw my children being taken." He said he lost two boys and two girls along with his sister-in-law and her two children.
Ivse Toussaint, 35, lost his wife and six children, aged 2 to 16.
"I tried to get my kids up on the roof but the water was moving too fast," he said. "When it reached my head, I couldn't see the children and pulled myself through a window and up to the roof."
He said neighbors in a canoe rescued him six hours later.
Gavreau said the World Food Program distributed food to about 1,000 families in Mapou yesterday. "But we need four or five times that amount here" -- much more than can be carried in by helicopter.
He said they also would have to help survivors for far longer than expected because crops of corn and other vegetables were destroyed and the soccer field-size lake created by the floods also carried corpses of pigs and goats.
The United States has provided $50,000 each in immediate relief to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Four days after the floods, rain was falling yesterday and forecasters said another three inches was expected over the weekend. Aid workers handed out plastic sheeting to help shelter survivors.
With many areas inaccessible, the death toll was impossible to estimate. The official Haitian governmental toll climbed to 579 on Thursday as some 165 people, including 45 children, were declared dead in Fond Verrettes, population 40,000.
At least 442 bodies have been recovered in the Dominican Republic, a number of them Haitian migrants.
Perry, the Marine, said a US helicopter flying to Fond Verrettes happened upon the disaster at Mapou, which is just 30 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince but totally cut off except by helicopter.
"We discovered this when we were flying over Wednesday," Perry said. "We looked down and said 'It looks like there was a town there, let's see what's going on.' "
American, Canadian, and Chilean troops arrived yesterday in helicopters loaded with water, food, medical supplies, and aid workers -- along with shovels and pickaxes to use in trying to recover bodies.
With few roads passable and only 14 helicopters, troops were trying to find other ways to reach the needy, said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan, spokesman for the US-led multinational force sent to Haiti after rebels ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29.
Local organizers are asking for donations to help with flood relief in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Rains this week lashed the island of Hispaniola, shared by the two countries, sweeping away entire neighborhoods.
In Boston, Haitian-Americans United Inc., an advocacy group, and the Spanish-language television station CuencaVision, Channel 58, are setting up efforts to assist the two nations.
Haitian-Americans United, in collaboration with other regional organizations, has set up an ongoing humanitarian-aid drive, with drop-off locations throughout Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Nonperishable foods, school and medical supplies, and clothing, as well as monetary donations, are welcome. The aid will be shipped via container directly to Haiti.
On Monday, Channel 58 will host a five-hour live telethon, starting at 5 p.m., to raise money for the Dominican city of Jimani, a town near the Haitian border that has been most affected by the floods. Listeners can call into the station and make pledges, make donations in person, or can arrange to have someone pick up their donation.
The station has also set up a Sovereign bank account at 585 Columbia Road, in Dorchester. Station employees and community members plan to travel to Jimani to present the money in person.
US Census numbers from 2000 indicate there are more than 44,000 Haitians and 20,000 Dominicans in Greater Boston.
CuencaVision can be reached at 617-541-2222, and Haitian-Americans United at 617-298-2976 or 617-513-9360. The group's website, www.bostonforhaiti.org, contains further information about how to make donations.
-- JESSICA BENNETT