Aid Groups Struggle in Haiti; Death Toll Rising

GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) — Nine people died at shelters, including two children, even as floodwaters from Hurricane Ike receded from Gonaives and a U.S. Navy hospital ship equipped with helicopters and amphibious boats arrived in the capital to deliver food and water to cities still marooned by flooding.

But with most roads across the country still impassible, Haiti — and the world — still lacked a complete picture of the destruction, and desperation was setting in among people who have spent days in the floodwaters and mud.

A Red Cross truck trying to reach Les Cayes on Haiti's southern coast had to turn back, one of many international aid efforts still struggling to leave the capital.

North of the capital, shelters across Gonaives sustained nine deaths on Monday, according to Daniel Dupiton of region's civil protection department.

It was not immediately clear what caused those deaths. Provisional shelters have been set up in schools, churches and homes on high ground, many with scant supplies or supervision.

"We cannot confirm that they died because of hunger," said Vicky Delore Ndjeuga, a U.N. spokesman for the mission in Gonaives. "We need to make an examination to make sure it was because of food."

The national death toll — which government officials said stood at 331 people in four tropical storms in less than a month — is sure to rise as more bodies surface in the mud.

Two more bodies were found Monday in coastal Cabaret, where 60 people died as mudslides and floods unleashed by a swollen river crushed homes in the middle of the night. Sixteen other people — mostly children reported missing by their parents — were being searched for in the wreckage, Cabaret civil defense director Henri Louis Praviel said.

Late on Monday, authorities confirmed 10 more deaths, five attributed to Ike and five to Tropical Storm Hanna.

There was still no word from many cities and remote areas cut off from contact.

In Gonaives, Police Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille said his poorly equipped force — 15 officers for the city of 160,000 — has buried dozens of badly decomposed and unidentifiable corpses in graves outside the city.

"After three days, those bodies could not stay," said Dorfeuille, adding he witnessed the burial of five people.

It wasn't clear how these bodies fit with previous tallies of the dead, but Dorfeuille denied reports citing him as giving a death toll of nearly 500 in Gonaives.

On one city street, a man used a rope to drag a bloated body through the floodwaters.

Lines of storm refugees trudged down from denuded hills Monday to the wreckage of their homes and stores.

"They told me it was destroyed but I wanted to see for myself," said Evos Chayot, who slogged through water up to her thighs to find her corner shop filled with black mud and debris.

Broken pews were scattered across the mud-smeared floor of the Gonaives cathedral, where about 50 people now live in the choir balcony. They gathered around a small cooking pot, stirring some goat meat and cornmeal to share.

Meanwhile, inmates at the city's jail clamored for deliverance from the overpowering stench of filth and sewage, and supplies for jail staff and U.N. peacekeepers as well as the 224 inmates were perilously low, said Dr. Manvoor Ahmad, a Pakistani member of the U.N. mission.

All across the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, desperation was evident.

"People are starting to move back because they have nowhere to go," U.N. development official Eric Mouillefarine said Monday. "They want to protect their homes from looters."

The USS Kearsarge was arriving in Port-au-Prince Monday after it was rerouted from a humanitarian mission to Colombia. With eight helicopters and three landing ships, it can deliver cargo and equipment all over Haiti, providing much of the logistical support needed by aid groups that have not been able to get through on land.

Some of the helicopters flew ahead to find dry places large and secure enough to offload, and the amphibious boats can reach places where even helicopters can't land. The Kearsarge also has four operating rooms and 53 hospital beds, which may come in handy once the ship reaches the hard-hit cities of Saint Marc and Gonaives.

"We can deliver several thousand tons a day. It's not what we can do, it's how it can be done," said the mission's commander, Capt. Fernandez "Frank" Ponds. "We can't just land them anywhere, so we're doing assessments. We have to make sure they can land safely."

One of the helicopters delivered rice, beans and cooking oil from the World Food Program to the town of Jeremie on Haiti's southwest peninsula. A woman who cares for 110 children at the Haiti Gospel orphanage was among about 50 people asking for a share.

"My garden was destroyed," said Yvros Pierre, who had just two bags of spoiled bread mix left. "My food is finished. My boss told me to see if there were any Americans coming and ask them for help."

Aid groups are appealing for donations to sustain a lengthy response, warning of a secondary disaster caused by waterborne illnesses and other problems in the weeks ahead. Even areas not destroyed by the storms need food, and Haiti's main farming area in the Artibonite Valley was threatened again when authorities had to open an overflowing dam on Sunday.

Some Gonaives residents gave up on the city altogether, walking barefoot across mountains to reach Haiti's northern coast, which suffered less damage. Racine Presume in Cap-Haitien said he got a desperate call from a group of a dozen relatives gave up along the way — and he was trying to find fuel for his truck to reach them.

"They are waiting for me. I said, 'Can I bring you a bed?' They said, 'Don't bring a bed because we don't have a house. Bring food, bring clothes, bring shoes, bring lots of water,'" Presume said. "They are dying of hunger."

Associated Press Writer Alexandra Olson, with a helicopter crew from the USS Kearsarge, contributed to this report.