Fall rains bring havoc to Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The rain has tapered off and floodwaters no longer claw at houses, but the situation across much of Haiti remained grim on Tuesday following an autumn of punishing rains that have killed scores of people and that threaten to cause even more hunger across the impoverished nation.

In places such as Croix-des-Missions, on the northeastern edge of the Haitian capital, the walls of dozens of homes along a pale brown river have been broken or ripped away, exposing clothes, bedding and everything else to the repeated downpours.

Heavy rains began falling in southern Haiti even before Hurricane Sandy passed just west of the country’s southern peninsula the night of Oct. 24, dropping more than 20 inches of rain within a 24-hour period.

“It took away my whole home. Now I don’t have anything,” said Solange Calixte, a 56-year-old mother of two whose home in Croix-des-Missions was largely destroyed by floodwaters of the nearby Gray River.

One of 21,000 people the U.N. says were left homeless by Sandy, Calixte was forced to move with her belongings beneath a tarp at a neighbor’s home.

And the rains have kept coming. Another front soaked much of the north late last week, causing more flooding and leaving at least a dozen dead.

So far the back-to-back storms have killed up to 66 people and the crisis is likely to worsen in coming months. Humanitarian workers anticipate a food shortage brought on by the massive flooding that destroyed yam and corn fields.

The United Nations says that as much as 90 percent of Haiti’s current harvest season, much of it in the south, was lost in Sandy’s floods, and the next harvest season won’t begin until March. The World Food Program estimates that more than 1.5 million people are now at risk of malnutrition because they were either displaced or lost crops, forcing Haitians to rely heavily on more-expensive imports.

“This means massive inflation, hunger for a lot of people and acute malnutrition,” said Johan Peleman, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti. “Basically, the cushion is gone.”

Soaring food costs have rattled Haiti before. In 2008 a jump in prices sparked more than a week of deadly rioting and ended in the ouster of the prime minister and his Cabinet.

The U.N. and Haitian government are now launching an emergency appeal to raise $39 million in hopes of stemming what they foresee as Haiti’s next humanitarian crisis. This money is supposed to help 1.2 million people by providing shelter and food, repairing water, sanitation systems and schools.

Calixte, who sells clothes on the street for a living, had seen flood waters seep into her concrete house before. It sits at the edge of a wide river that cuts through the northern side of Haiti’s capital. But Sandy did more. The storm led the caramel-colored river to claw away at the banks, and it ripped apart the home she had lived in since 1999.

The river has since receded and people can safely walk across through the water.

But Calixte said life is anything but normal.

“I’m at the mercy of other people,” she said, her eyes tearing up.

In the north, just outside Cap-Haitien, night-long rains from a cold front caused a river to burst its bank Thursday night. The U.N. base in town was flooded, but the real damage was at the edge of ravine where floodwaters swept away cinderblock homes and the people inside them. City Hall asked aid groups for body bags.

The rains pounded the northern coast of the country through the night. The bodies of five children and a woman in her 30s were found in a village on the outskirts of Cap-Haitien and laid out in a tight row the next day.

The country’s civil protection office counted 10 dead that morning, and added two more several days later. But officials such as the mayor of Cap-Haitien believe the toll could rise now that floodwaters are receding to reveal bodies trapped in thrashed homes.

“Every few hours they will call you and say, `We found a body and need you to come collect the body,”’ Jean Cherenfant said. “That’s the way it has been happening the past few days: The bodies keep surfacing.”

The government and foreign aid groups have responded by handing out hot meals but humanitarian workers fear it may be hard to find food down the road.

For some, the search for food is already underway.

“I’m waiting for the government to help me,” Calixte said. “If they don’t, I have to go out and beg for food.”

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