U.S. copters rush aid to Haiti flood victims

Village under water

toll could reach 2,000 after Caribbean deluge

May 28, 2004|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,NEWSDAY

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - U.S. and Canadian troops used helicopters to deliver aid to a submerged Haitian village where up to 1,000 people are believed to have drowned in floods that lashed the island of Hispaniola on Monday, raising the possible death toll from the deluge to as many as 2,000.

Estimates varied widely, but if that toll is confirmed, the flooding would mark the worst disaster to strike the Caribbean in years.

Racing against forecasts of further rain, troops rushed food, water and medical supplies to the remote village of Mapou on Haiti's southeastern border.

"Mapou is under several feet of water, and if it rains again, the situation could get even worse," said Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led international peacekeeping force sent to Haiti after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide three months ago.

Haitian officials, quoting the few rescue workers able to make it to Mapou, described a gruesome scene of hundreds of bodies floating through the streets.

Workers have recovered 280 bodies there so far, and Margarette Martin, who heads civil protection services for southeastern Haiti, said up to 700 people are unaccounted for. International relief officials who have surveyed Mapou believe that estimate may be too high but said the situation is dire.

"It's a total disaster," said Martin. "Mapou is in a basin, and when the floods came, pow! They filled the village up."

The few roads to Mapou, which is difficult to reach even under good weather conditions, were destroyed, preventing relief workers from reaching the town by land.

Workers from the United Nations and private relief agencies were getting there by hitching helicopter rides with the U.S.-led military force.

Coming on the heels of heavy weekend rains, the flood roared from the Solie River dividing Haiti and the Dominican Republic before dawn Monday, sweeping away entire neighborhoods, as well as crops, cars, farm animals and trees.

"It was an inferno, but with water instead of fire," said Gedania Novas, a resident of Jimani, a Dominican border town, who lost a sister and four nieces and nephews in the ferocious currents. "The water was as high as the rooftops, and it carried everything away with it that it could take."

Hans Hertell, the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, flew to Jimani yesterday and pronounced the situation "grim." The United States is looking at ways to bring more aid to flood areas, he said.

By last night, Haitian authorities said 579 people had been confirmed dead in areas of Haiti that included Mapou, Fond Verrettes and Grand-Gosier. There were at least 400 more victims in the Dominican Republic, primarily around Jimani. Officials on both sides of the border estimated that hundreds of people were still missing.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are in the throes of economic crises. But the flood's damage is expected to be felt the hardest in Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest and most troubled nation.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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