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Relief Efforts Under Way for Haitian Flood Victims - 2004-09-21

At least 600 people have died in flooding in Haiti. Most people died in and around the northern port city of Gonaives as tropical storm Jeanne moved through the area. A large relief effort is under way to help flood victims.

Witnesses say a torrential downpour that lasted more than 24 hours turned the city of Gonaives into a rushing river. Three-meter high waters cascaded through the streets forcing people to flee to their roofs to wait out the storm.

When the rain finally stopped late Sunday much of the city was destroyed and hundreds of Gonaives residents were dead. Relief has now begun arriving in the city, which is about 100 kilometers north of the capital Port-au-Prince. Speaking by cell phone from the outskirts of Gonaives, Anne Poulsen a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program says most of the city's population was affected by the flooding.

"The conditions are really hard, it is devastating what happened there," she said. "You have more than 50 percent of the city flooded and under standing water. You have more than 80 percent of the population of the city itself of more than 100,000 affected by the floods."

The World Food Program delivered about 40 metric tons of food aid and medicine to Gonaives on Tuesday. Argentine peacekeepers stationed in the city since Haiti's political crisis earlier this year, worked to rescue people during the flooding, and have been working to bring relief to Gonaives' beleaguered population.

This is not the first time flooding has devastated Haiti this year. Four months ago torrential rains in southern Haiti and the Dominican Republic killed an estimated 3,000 people in the region. The World Food Program's Anne Poulsen says poverty and deforestation have left Haiti vulnerable to whims of Caribbean storms.

"The problem is that a huge part of the country, more than 90 percent of Haiti is completely deforested," she said. "So there is nothing to hold against when you have these tropical storms and hurricanes blowing in across the country. There is nothing to hold against water coming down on people, you have torrents washing down the mountains, you have mudslides."

Haiti's interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, a native of Gonaives, has toured the city and declared three days of national mourning.

Tropical storm Jeanne, which is now a hurricane and is far out in the Atlantic Ocean, was just one of a series of storms that have swept through the Caribbean and in recent weeks, in one of the busiest hurricane seasons in memory.

Hurricane Ivan devastated the island of Grenada, and killed more than 100 people in the Caribbean and the southeast United States. Hurricanes Charley and Frances killed scores of people and caused widespread destruction, both in the Caribbean and in the U.S. state of Florida.