GONAIVES – Democratic leaders in Congress have sharply criticized President Bush’s pledged $19 million aid to the hurricane-devastated Caribbean nation, saying it is too little considering the extend of the damages.
“I have joined my colleagues to ask the Speaker of the House to provide an appropriation of at least $300 million in disaster assistance for Haiti in the supplemental appropriations bill or another legislative vehicle that will be passed before Congress adjourns,” said Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Congresswoman who visited Haiti last week. “ In addition, I have signed onto a letter to Secretary Rice requesting the United States to act expeditiously and effectively to assist our neighbor in their time of need. “
Floods that devastated a Haitian city and killed hundreds threaten to trigger a health crisis and fresh outbreaks of food riots throughout Haiti, government officials and aid workers say.
Gonaives is not the only city in Haiti devastated primarily by Tropical Storm Hanna at the start of the month. But bringing help to the city of 300,000 is difficult because the storm downed bridges and cut all roads leading into it, so the only access is by helicopter and boat.
“There is a need for almost everything right now,” said Oxfam program director Charlie Rowley. “It’s food, very clearly. The hygiene situation is appalling. There is enormous overcrowding in the shelters,” he said.
“The conditions in the (temporary) camps are appalling. Because of the flooding and the mud, there is nowhere to put people.”
A senior Haitian health official said that without clean water there was a growing risk of epidemic and that the elderly and young were especially vulnerable without food.
Haiti is already in precarious economic straits, has been battered by three storms in the past few weeks, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and particularly Tropical Storm Hanna, have provoked a national crisis, damaging infrastructure and flattening crops.
According to the Government of Haiti and the United Nations, it is estimated that the combined effects of four storms in less than thirty days have killed 328 people; left 37 people missing, displaced approximately 82,600 people to temporary shelters, destroyed over 3,300 houses, and damaged more than 11,800 houses.
More than a week after Hanna filled Gonaives with water that rose as high as 15 feet and killed more than 500, according to the local police chief, the situation is in some ways stabilizing.
The UN has asked for an additional $108 million in aid for Haiti. John Holmes, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, said the emergency and recovery aid being sought is especially crucial since “the longer-term economic impact is also bound to be grave.”
The money _ including $48 million for food, shelter and other items and $11 million for agriculture _ is to be used by several U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations, Haiti’s government and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
About 70 U.N. peacekeepers from Argentina and 20 from Peru, some in riot gear, kept order at a U.N. World Food Program distribution of food to thousands of women.
Aid workers fear the devastation could spark more unrest in Haiti where violent protests over spiraling food prices rocked the country earlier this year and triggered the government’s fall in April.
“In the next two months, the situation will become more and more acute,” ActionAid country director Raphael Yves Pierre said. “The risk of food riots is very imminent.”
Thousands of women who lined up to receive 110-pound (50- kg) bags of rice at food distributions in Gonaives on Thursday showed signs of hunger and distress. Pregnant women are deemed a priority and were placed in a separate line but many found it difficult to wait for hours in the sun and some looked on the point of collapse.
“The storm (Hanna) took away everything we own,” said Genise Oscar, 41, who is nine months pregnant. “The house is still standing but one part of it was destroyed by water.”
She struggled to load the heavy sack on her head and had to stop several times to rest.
LIVING ON THE ROOF
Small-scale commerce provided a livelihood for many families in Gonaives before the storm but for many the lasting impact of the storm is just now becoming clear.
Entire sections of the city close to the sea are no-go zones, impassable for even the biggest vehicles, and tens of thousands of people have migrated to the northern section of the city, which is set on slightly higher ground and avoided the flooding.
Thousands of families who escaped to their roofs at the height of Tropical Storm Hanna are still living there because their houses remain uninhabitable.
The storm wiped out the goods many people sell, diminishing their earning capacity, while food prices at the makeshift stalls set up on the sides of roads have since more than doubled, according to street traders.
An equally pressing problem is water and sanitation.
Many families said they collected rain water in buckets or saucepans. Traders selling water in plastic bags were doing a roaring trade and other families said they were resigned to drinking whatever water they could find that “looked clean.”
Not surprisingly, diarrhea is a growing health problem, although one senior health official said there were so far no cases of cholera.
The city never had a single, integrated sewer system but high water levels have rendered drainage canals and sump pits inoperable as well as causing sewage to mingle with the floodwaters. Shelters provide little sanitation and many people said they had no choice but to defecate into plastic bags and fling them into the street.