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Life slowly resumes in devastated Gonaives city

Latest update : 2008-09-12

Residents of the Haitian city of Gonaives are struggling to find food after hurricanes Hanna and Ike. FRANCE 24 visited the main police station, where inmates from the destroyed prison were moved under terrible conditions. Some images are graphic.

Click on the videos on the right to see earlier coverage by correspondents Mary MacCarthy and Nicolas Ransom in Haiti

GONAIVES - Tens of thousands of people are struggling for survival in this low-lying port in northern Haiti, 10 days after Tropical Storm Hanna drowned their city in a sea of mud and filthy water.

Many waded in search of food on Wednesday through thigh-high water polluted by oil, the carcasses of dead animals and feces.

Hundreds of people died in the storm but authorities said many corpses were washed out to sea and it was difficult to give precise figures.

In Hanna's wake came fierce Hurricane Ike this week, making things worse in Haiti's fourth-largest city.

Police chief Ernst Dorfeuille maintains that Hanna killed more than 500 people in the city while Daniel Dupiton, regional coordinator of the Red Cross, said at least 450 lost their lives.

The health department has reported 144 confirmed deaths.

Haiti has long been a symbol of global inequality. One of the poorest countries in the world, the Caribbean nation stands in the traditional backyard of the United States, the world's richest nation.

Many Haitians scrape by on a dollar a day or less and the worst cyclone in years has proved a national catastrophe, setting back agriculture, destroying infrastructure in the western part of the country and plunging the 300,000 residents of Gonaives into misery.

The storm flooded around 95 percent of the shops in the city, Dorfeuille said, but it was particularly devastating for families -- perhaps the majority in the city -- who make money with small-scale commerce.

Bernadette Vertillus escaped from the storm to a shelter with her husband and her 10 children plus two others she cares for.

"Hunger is killing us," she said because the family had not eaten for 48 hours.

The family was sleeping on pallets in a warehouse. Vertillus salvaged some clothes from her house but what upset her most was losing the secondhand clothes she sold to make a living.

Estine Thomas, 26, said she too had lost everything in the storm and had decamped to a school with her 9-year-old daughter since the storm. What upset her most was losing the underwear she sold to make a living.

Health crisis

Gonaives faces the sea and is at points more than four feet (one meter) below sea level. Its position proved fatal as the storm not only sent big waves cascading inland, but raised the level of the Laquinte and other rivers. Even now, strong currents carry debris through parts of a city.

Because Hanna downed bridges, the only way into the city from the capital is by helicopter or boat. From the air it is clear that the southern section of the city remains largely flooded, the roofs and walls awash in mud and water.

For many people there is little alternative but to rebuild and salvage everything possible from houses filled to overflowing with water.

On one street, dozens of women washed clothes in the dark brown water, attempting to make them slightly cleaner. And a man pushed a motorbike through water that rose at times to its handlebars.

Just a few hundred yards (meters) away, the carcass of a horse lay bloated in the hot sun.

The storm has also provoked a health crisis that could get worse unless the city urgently brings in more clean water or builds a purification plant, said Carl Cantave, health director of the Artibonite district that includes Gonaives.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, many people suffered foot lacerations as they trudged without shoes to safety. Many women suffered vaginal infections in the deep water, while others were complaining of diarrhea and contagious skin disease or scabies, Cantave said.

Cantave watched the storm unfold from his roof and then spent three days without food.

"I could see the heads of people and animals floating past. Whole houses were swept away," he said.

Despite the ordeal, Cantave said he was back at work and planning with aid agencies to consolidate the city's health-care resources. One positive thing was that many of the city's patients had been evacuated prior to the storm, he said.

Date created : 2008-09-11