Floods kill 2,000 as Haiti faces a year of disaster

It should have been a time of carnival and celebration. Instead it has turned into a catastophe. Phil Davison reports on the catastrophe in the Caribbean
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The Independent US

It was to have been Haiti's "Big Year", a time of carnival and celebration, the bicentennial of independence for a nation of self-freed slaves who defeated Napoleon's colonial army. Instead, it has been a year of disaster, death and destruction on a heart-rending scale.

It now looks certain that more than 2,000 Haitians lost their lives in the flooding that followed Tropical Storm Jeanne last weekend. A similar number drowned in floods in May, caused not by an Atlantic hurricane but simply a light rainstorm that swept away their shanty homes. A little more than two months before that, they lost their elected president in what was in effect a US-backed coup and an armed uprising that left 300 dead. This has turned into a year of mourning in the poorest country of the western hemisphere.

Countries and aid organisations are now in what they call a race against time to save the lives of a quarter of a million homeless and starving Haitians who could yet face the wrath of two more storms - Karl and Lisa - swirling across the Atlantic. They have no food, no drinking water, no electricity, no shelter. Some are still living on whatever solid rooftop they could find. Efforts to get food, water, plastic sheeting, blankets and medicines to them are being hampered by remaining floodwaters or mudslides blocking the country's main north-south artery, even at the best of times a potholed two-lane road.

Human and animal corpses drifted yesterday down the muddy river that was the main street of the north-western town of Gonaives. Many desperate residents filled buckets with the filthy brown water and said they and their children would have to drink it if no potable water arrived. When crowds fought to reach the first lorryloads of bottled water, Argentinian soldiers, the main contingent of a UN force sent after the armed uprising, were forced to fire their rifles into the air to keep them away.

As waters receded in higher areas yesterday, starving dogs were seen tearing at the limbs of human corpses. Then, at sunset, when Haitians would normally be returning, smiling as always, from fields or rural markets, survivors watched and wailed as coal lorries unceremoniously dumped more than 100 bloated bodies into a 15ft pit designated as one of two official mass graves in Gonaives. Many protested - most Haitians are devout Christians, Protestant or Catholic - demanding Christian burials for all, but the authorities insisted that immediate burial, without identification, was vital to help prevent cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea or other diseases. "There is a risk of an epidemic," said Gerard Latortue, the interim Prime Minister since February's US-backed ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "There is no power, so the morgues are not functioning." Flooded hospitals added to the chaos.

Officials said the known death toll last night was around 1,100 but that a further 1,250 people were missing, mostly in Gonaives or the smaller northern town of Port-de-Paix. In Gonaives, traditionally Haiti's political hotbed rather than the capital, Port-au-Prince, Jezula St Fleur, 28, described how her shanty home was washed away, and with it her husband and two sisters, when a floodwall thundered into it in the middle of the night last Saturday. "There was no warning. They had no chance," she said. She clung to her three children, including a nine-month-old baby, as they were swept away and they survived along with her.

The one good piece of news yesterday was that the remote island of La Tortue (Turtle Island) was found to be largely unaffected. First reports had suggested it might have disappeared under floodwater but helicopter pilots said its peasant homes remained largely intact.

While Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, called it a "natural disaster", the reality was that the latest flooding, as with last May's inundations in the south of the country along the border with the Dominican Republic, was largely a man-made catastrophe. The relatively low death toll in the Dominican Republic last weekend, 19, told the tale. The Dominicans still have their forests.

Although a light rainstorm in May, and the tropical storm Jeanne this time round, were the causes, the effects of this year's floods were in great part down to Haiti's tragic deforestation, itself part of the vicious circle of poverty in the French and Creole-speaking black nation. Once a lush, green tropical paradise - the French colonialists billed Haiti "The Pearl of the Antilles" - sheer poverty has forced Haitians to chop down tens of millions of trees a year over the past few generations to make charcoal as their only affordable fuel.

No trees, no topsoil, nothing to stop rainwater from careening down on to low-lying areas. And, the experts say, it can only get worse. In the 1950s, 25 per cent of Haiti was covered in thick, verdant forest. Now, it is less than 2 per cent. Much of the rest is a lunar landscape. The country could be pure desert by the end of the decade unless successive governments take reforestation seriously. There is a reforestation plan, but for every tree planted in recent years, seven were chopped down.

Much of the blame for beginning the vicious circle of deforestation must go to the Duvalier dynasty that ruled from the 1950s, first under François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, lasting until his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc", was kicked out after mass protests in 1986. Backed by successive US governments as a stabilising, anti-Communist influence within 100 miles of Cuba, the Duvaliers were happy to let their starving masses chop trees and burn charcoal while the wealthy elite burnt electricity to extremes in their luxury villas high above Port-au-Prince.

The US invaded the poor nation in 1915 and ruled it for almost two decades. After Mr Aristide was ousted by a military coup in 1991, it sent its troops to reinstate him in 1994. When the former priest failed to live up to US expectations, it sent its troops again to escort him into exile. But President George Bush wasted no time in bringing his boys home after a few weeks and was happy to hand the problem to Argentinian and other foreign troops.

After May's floods, Haitians felt that US aid was reluctant and insufficient. They feel the US retains a racist view of their country. Case in point: if a Cuban arrives in Florida on board a home-made raft, he is greeted as something of a hero and quickly becomes part of the Cuban-American community. If a Haitian washes ashore, he is dealt with by immigration officials wearing surgical gloves, processed, and sent back.