September 6, 2008 / 8:29 AM / 11 years ago

Death toll in flooded Haitian town soars

(Updates with new death toll)

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Almost 500 people died when up to 5 metres (16.4 ft) of muddy water swept through the Haitian town of Gonaives this week, triggered by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Hanna, police said on Friday.

The soaring death toll in the impoverished Caribbean country’s fourth largest city began to be revealed as floodwaters receded and aid started to be delivered to those who survived by fleeing to their rooftops.

"The weather is calm now and we are discovering more bodies. We have found 495 bodies so far and there are 13 people missing." Gonaives police commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille told Reuters. "The smell of the dead is very unpleasant in Gonaives. The death toll could be even higher."

Dorfeuille said that in some parts of the town, the water had reached 5 meters in depth. The 13 missing people were trapped in a house and neighbors who heard them screaming for help said they did not believe they had escaped.

The 495 dead in Gonaives brought the toll for all of Haiti to at least 529 after a week of floods and mudslides caused by Hanna, a storm that swirled over the southeastern Bahamas islands for a couple of days before aiming for the Carolinas on the U.S. East Coast on Friday.

The United Nations said it would launch an appeal for emergency funds to help up to 600,000 Haitians while the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies appealed for 3.8 million Swiss francs ($3.4 million) in donations for Haiti.

A freighter with food supplied by the U.N.’s World Food Program and carrying other supplies including drinking water docked in Gonaives, where the streets were thick with mud and littered with the carcasses of drowned animals after four days of floods.

It was the first of several vessels and aircraft, including helicopters, set to arrive with aid for Gonaives, the WFP said.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas where most people scrape by on less than $2 a day, has been hit by three successive storms in less than a month. Tropical Storm Fay killed more than 50 people last month while Hurricane Gustav left at least 75 people dead.

In Hanna’s wake came fierce Hurricane Ike, which could dip close to northern Haiti before taking aim at Cuba, south Florida or potentially the Gulf of Mexico next week.

The storms have flooded fields in Haiti and compounded the misery of a population of about 9 million struggling to cope with rising food and fuel prices.

"Right now these storms are threatening the gradual progress we were making in helping the most vulnerable communities better cope with high food and fuel prices," said Myrta Kaulard, the WFP representative in Haiti.

U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes told a news conference in New York that 250,000 people had been "badly affected" in Gonaives, with some 70,000 still in shelters.

"We’re expecting to announce a flash appeal in response to the problems in Haiti, possibly as early as tomorrow," Holmes said. "I can’t give you a figure for how much that will be."

The world’s largest disaster relief network, meanwhile, said the funds it was seeking would help support the operations of the Haitian Red Cross in the next six months.

"Essential food items, first-aid materials, vital medicines, clean drinking water and shelter are among the most urgent needs at this time, according to specialists on the ground," the Geneva-based agency said. (Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)

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