Haiti in crisis after tropical storm claims more than 500 lives

New PM pledges help as flood victims lie dead in the streets and a quarter of a million are made homeless

Haiti faces a growing humanitarian crisis after receding floodwaters from tropical storm Hanna left hundreds of bodies on the ruined streets of the northern city of Gonaives. The death toll from the third major storm to hit the impoverished Caribbean country in recent weeks rose above 500 yesterday, with more than a quarter of a million people left homeless.

An even stronger storm, Hurricane Ike, was scheduled to pass just to the north of the country in the early hours of this morning, hitting the Turks and Caicos islands and the eastern end of Cuba, before arriving at the southern tip of the Florida panhandle on Tuesday.

"The weather is calm now, and we are discovering more bodies," said Ernst Dorfeuille, Gonaives' police commissioner. "We have found 495 bodies so far and there are 13 people missing. The smell is very unpleasant in Gonaives. The death toll could be even higher."

In some parts of the city the water had reached five metres in depth, he added. The missing were trapped in a house, and neighbours who heard them screaming for help said they did not appear to have escaped.

UN peacekeepers and aid workers arrived in Gonaives on Friday, four days after the storm had passed. An estimated 600,000 local people are in need of emergency help following the tropical storm, which came on the heels of hurricanes Fay and Gustav.

The rusty container ship Trois Rivières, chartered by the World Food Programme, was being unloaded at a remote private port outside the city, guarded by Argentine peacekeepers brandishing assault rifles.

Rescue operations are being made harder by the security situation in the troubled country. It has been without a proper government since April, when President René Préval dismissed the regime of Jacques-Edouard Alexis amid violent food protests; his replacement as prime minister, Michèle Pierre-Louis, took office on Friday.

"We're ready for the battle," she announced, during her inauguration ceremony at the National Palace. "My government will take all necessary measures to deal with the bad weather threatening the country over the next hours, and to bring help to the population who fell victim of the past natural disasters."

When Hanna had been downgraded to a tropical storm, it made landfall on the east coast of the US. Heavy rainfall and strong winds were reported among coastal communities around the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, but little damage was reported.

Attention will now shift to Ike, with its 120mph-plus Category 4 winds, several hundred miles away in the Atlantic. The holiday islands of the Turks and Caicos, in Ike's path, have been largely evacuated.

Cuba, which suffered around 80 deaths from Gustav, mostly in the west of the island, will take the brunt of Ike in the east of the country – the region that also contains the US base at Guantanamo Bay.

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