GONAIVES, Haiti (AP) – Food and fresh water ran dangerously low for thousands in the flood-stricken Haitian city of Gonaives and surrounding villages this week, as governments and aid groups struggled to get aid to people stranded at shelters.
Shipments of food and pledges of more poured in from around the world, but the distribution of the emergency supplies was hampered by the impoverished country’s chronic insecurity and the poor and often nonexistent network of roads and other infrastructure.
“The availability of food is not an issue,” said Myrta Kaulard, a representative of the U.N. World Food Program. “Access, yes, is an issue.”
On Wednesday the United Nations appealed for nearly $108 million more in disaster relief. Humanitarian chief John Holmes called the aid especially crucial since “the longer-term economic impact is also bound to be grave.”
U.N. peacekeepers have been handing out water and high-protein biscuits throughout Gonaives, which is still largely underwater after successive hits from one tropical storm and three hurricanes. But they have had to switch to distributing only at night to avoid causing a riot among desperate citizens.
A U.S. Navy ship, the USS Kearsarge, arrived off the coast Sunday evening with amphibious boats and helicopters capable of resolving some of the logistical problems.
But Hurricane Ike delayed the vessel’s arrival to the capital, Port-au-Prince, until late the next day, and its helicopters spent two days trying to find a safe spot to land in Gonaives.
Amphibious boats and helicopters from the Kearsarge have since delivered more than 85 metric tons of rice, beans and flour to the city. But the rice cannot be sent to shelters until the U.N. World Food Program sends in culinary kits to cook it, said Vicky Delore Ndjeuga, a U.N. spokesman for the mission in Gonaives.
The slow pace of the aid was evident in Gonaives. At least 331 people have been killed in several storms, and the toll could rise. Nine people have already died in shelters with little supplies or organization.
Floodwaters from Hurricane Ike receded to ankle-level in many parts of the city, allowing more hungry and injured people to make their way to a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.
There, a team of doctors from around Latin America scrambled to treat about 200 people with infections on their feet and legs from more than a week of slogging through flooded streets.
Mothers carried listless children with protruding stomachs, their hair bleached and receding from malnutrition. A young woman in a red skirt writhed in agony and sang a voodoo hymn asking that her stomach ailment leave her body. An old woman lying on the floor died as people walked around her.
“People are suffering from a lack of water and food,” said Efrain Fajardo, an orthopedic surgeon pouring antiseptic over a bone protruding from a man’s big toe. Fajardo said the hospital was running out of fuel for generators, bandages and cotton swaths.
The crisis in Gonaives developed through an unlucky sequence of events, from a last-minute change in Tropical Storm Hanna’s course to the onslaught of Hurricane Ike just as relief supplies started to get through.
Hanna was on track to sideswipe the Bahamas when it took a dip in course on Aug. 31. Relief efforts in Haiti had been concentrated on the southern coast, where Hurricane Gustav had just hit.
“There was no, absolutely no forewarning that a few hours later we were going to start being swamped by Hurricane Hanna, which changed the landscape completely,” said Julie Leonard, a regional adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But Haiti’s problems are not new. The country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years. In April, deadly riots were sparked by the rising price of food in a country where half the population lives on less than $1 a day. The food crisis also prompted an outpouring of aid to the country.
Getting that aid to the flood zones, however, has turned into a nightmare. Because Hanna lingered over Haiti, it took three days just for U.N. helicopters to be able to fly over Gonaives to get a full picture of the disaster. Trucks leaving Port-au-Prince with supplies still can’t get far in any direction because of damaged bridges and roads.
Even as aid workers struggle to keep up with the crisis in Gonaives, no one knows how many people are suffering in communities cut off by Ike, along both the southern and northern coasts.
Associated Press Writer John Heilprin at the United Nations in New York contributed to this report.
Photo Courtesy of Cross International, www.CrossInternational.org. Cross ministry partners load food onto a helicopter to be airlifted into Gonaives. All bridges and roads into the hardest-hit town are impassible due to flooding.