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Humanitarian Disaster Unfolds in Haiti

Jacques Guillon

People wait in line at a food distribution center in Gonaives, Haiti, Monday, Sept. 8, 2008. Four storms have killed more than 300 people in Haiti in less than a month. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Gonaives, Haiti - Haiti's third largest city is at the centre of a humanitarian disaster after being hit hard by four major storms in less than a month.

Supplies slowly trickling into waterlogged Gonaives, but they were nowhere near the amount needed for flood victims who have gone for days without food or clean water.

The UN Mission in Haiti said 101 bodies have been found in Gonaives, the Haitian city hardest hit by Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike, since yesterday.

Four major storms, two of them hurricanes, have struck Haiti in less than four weeks.

More than 600 Haitians have died and the disaster is still unfolding due to the challenge of delivering aid in the impoverished and waterlogged Caribbean country.

"If we don't find a way to deliver massive humanitarian aid, we will see fights and riots that will kill more people than the cyclone did," warned UN spokeswoman Vicky Delore-Ndjeuga.

Gonaives was flooded when Tropical Storm Hanna lashed the low-lying northern city surrounded by deforested hillsides at the beginning of the month.

Across Haiti, 800,000 people are in urgent need of humanitarian aide, almost half children, according to a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.

In Gonaives, a mob ambushed a truck carrying emergency food.

The Argentine UN peacekeepers protecting the vehicle were overwhelmed by women and young children who tore into the food supplies on the spot.

The distribution drop-off was poorly planned, said a humanitarian worker, who declined to give his name.

"People are desperate, the situation is explosive," he said.

The city normally has a population of 300,000, of whom some 80,000 are living in shelters.
Many are making do sleeping on rooftops, with their animals, their bicycles and their furniture, waiting for the water level to drop.

When heavy rain from Tropical Storm Jeanne triggered floods and landslides that killed 3000 in Gonaives four years ago, it took at least three weeks for the situation to stablise.

French secretary of state for cooperation Alain Joyandet toured the city's mud-choked roads aboard a UN truck today.

Stopping at the city's cathedral - surrounded by a lake of reeking dark water - he was confronted by a crowd of anxious locals.

"We're hungry and nobody knows a thing," cried one of the refugees.

"The bridge and the road must be fixed," another said.

Mr Joyandet promised aide from France and Europe.

Seen from a helicopter, nearly half of the corn and rice crop in the region around Gonaives was under water, which bodes badly for a country that can barely feed its own people.

Meanwhile, UN officials established an air bridge between the capital Port-au-Prince and Gonaives, 150km to the north, to reach the 250,000 people in need of help in the region.

Some 64 tonnes of emergency supplies had already been flown to the region on 46 helicopter flights over the past days, UN Mission spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe said.

The UN military spokesman in Haiti, Colonel Damir Milinovic, said the operations would continue.

"All the MINUSTAH's military elements have been mobilised to offer security to the distribution of humanitarian aid and security for the convoys that transport the aid," Col Milinovic said.


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