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Hurricane Season Repeatedly Pounds Impoverished Nation of Haiti

September 8, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hurricane Ike is heading to the U.S., but, already, it has hit the Caribbean islands with devastating effect. The deadliest toll from Ike and previous storms has been in the impoverished nation of Haiti.

We get a report from Jason Beaubien of National Public Radio in the port city of Gonaives.

Jeffrey Brown talked to him this evening by phone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jason, even before Ike arrived, Haiti had been hit hard by three other storms. So, set the scene for us. What was the situation before this weekend? How bad was it already?

JASON BEAUBIEN, National Public Radio: Even before Ike hit, most of Gonaives was still flooded. The waters had receded quite a bit. The waters at one point had been up around, people were saying, three meters, so you had almost 10 feet.

When I got here on Saturday, the water was sort of at chest level in some parts of Gonaives, but mainly sort of ankle to knee level elsewhere in Gonaives. And that was on Saturday. And then Ike hit overnight on Saturday and reflooded the — the entire city.

But it also has not just been Gonaives. In the south, the southwest, you have also got towns that were cut off by Gustav. Some of them were battered by Tropical Storm Fay. Haiti has really been getting battered in this — this hurricane season.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we’re getting reports of at least 58 dead from Ike and then hundreds of others from the storms before. Is this from the flooding and drowning? Are there also buildings collapsing? Describe what you’re seeing for us.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Mostly, it’s — it’s people that drowned in their homes. There were a couple of landslides, one just the other day that killed 10 people sort of between Gonaives and Port-au-Prince.

For the most part, it’s been people that have been in their homes, the waters have risen too rapidly, and people have drowned.

It’s actually quite amazing. As I said, Tropical Storm Hanna hit here on Monday. I didn’t get in until Saturday. And there was some water that I was walking through that I was worried it was going to sweep me away, just pretty strong currents still in the middle of the city.

And that’s basically what — I mean, that’s a week later. So, you can’t imagine what that water must have been like at its peak. It was up over one-story high. Anyone that was left down there, the chances of them getting out was — were very slim. And most people took refuge on their roofs.

And you still have got a lot of people all over Gonaives living on their roofs. That’s how most people managed to ride out the storms who were down, remained down in that area.

Towns inundated with water, mud

Jason Beaubien
National Public Radio
Well, people are fairly -- fairly desperate. The city is completely cut off by roads from the rest of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about the city where you are. It's a low-lying area, I understand. And how cut off is it right now?

JASON BEAUBIEN: You have to first remember that Gonaives is one of the poorest cities in Haiti. And Haiti is the poorest city in -- or poorest nation in this hemisphere.

This was always an incredibly, incredibly poor place. So, now the city has really been just, you know -- now it's just full of mud. So, what was an incredibly poor city, now it's just inundated with mud and debris. Some people's homes have been knocked down. They were starting from an incredibly low base, and this has just sort of knocked things down even more.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how are people coping? You were out and about talking and looking today. What did you see? What are people dealing with?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Well, people are fairly -- fairly desperate. The city is completely cut off by roads from the rest of the country.

That was another thing about Ike. The aid agencies had finally gotten another road open to Port-au-Prince on Saturday. And, sure enough, Ike knocked that road out when it came through on Saturday night into Sunday morning.

So, once again, the city is completely cut off from -- from -- for road access to the capital. The only way that goods are moving in here are basically by helicopter. The U.S. Navy actually sent a ship in today. It's in Port-au-Prince at the moment. It is going to be carrying supplies up here.

It's a U.S. Naval vessel, the USS Kearsarge. That is going to be aiding in the effort. But, for people on the street, things are actually fairly desperate. Because things are so cut off, the food prices in the market are jumping dramatically. The fuel prices are jumping dramatically.

People are desperate for clean water, because the -- most of the water usually comes from the wells. People pull water up from wells. Well, all that water underneath is just inundated with this floodwater, which has sewage. It has a lot of dead animals were -- were killed, and, you know, you can smell it as you're walking around, the stench of rotting flesh.

And that has gotten into the water table as well. Aid agencies are incredibly worried about the water situation, because this is a city of 300,000 people. And to sort of try to recreate a water filtration system overnight for that number of people, it's almost impossible. So, that's a huge, huge concern for people.

Biggest need is drinkable water

Jason Beaubien
National Public Radio
There isn't some central place yet where there's a big water filtration and people can go get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, that's what I was going to ask you. What are they actually able to do, given the situation? What are the aid agencies actually able to do about what you -- it sounds like the biggest need is clean water.

JASON BEAUBIEN: So, the U.N. is driving around in trucks. They have got big trucks that look like oil, you know -- sort of a small oil tanker that's driving around delivering water. It's got a big hose off the back. And people run out with their pots and their plastic jugs. And they just pour this water out the back.

And it's -- the water is heavy with iodine. It doesn't taste very good, but it's clean. And that's where a lot of the water is coming from. A couple of other aid agencies are driving around just throwing bottles out of trucks to people, bottles and plastic bags of water to -- to people.

People -- mind you, these people are standing in water already. Most of the people who are down there trying to clean out their houses are standing ankle deep, maybe knee deep, in water, attempting to sort of get their lives going again.

And the aid agencies are coming around distributing water in these two ways. There isn't some central place yet where there's a big water filtration and people can go get it. It's -- it's too soon after the emergency, and they simply haven't been able to get all of that equipment in to start doing water filtration and water sort of purification on a large scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jason Beaubien of NPR is in Gonaives, Haiti.

Thank you very much.

JASON BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.