Tomas soaks Haiti quake camps, triggers floods
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Hurricane Tomas soaked Haiti's crowded earthquake survivors' camps and swamped coastal towns as it swirled between Haiti and Cuba on Friday, trailing thunderstorms that still could cause flooding and mudslides.
One person died overnight trying to cross a river in Haiti's Grande-Anse region southwest of the capital, and scattered flooding was reported in the coastal towns of Les Cayes, Jacmel and Leogane.
In the capital Port-au-Prince, still scarred from a devastating January 12 earthquake, hundreds of thousands of homeless quake survivors huddled under rain-drenched tent and tarpaulin shelters in muddy encampments. The quake killed more than a quarter of a million people.
The United Nations and relief agencies have gone on maximum alert to prepare for the risk of another humanitarian catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, which is already reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic on top of the widespread quake destruction.
There were no immediate reports of major destruction or mass casualties. The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the storm could have dealt a far worse blow.
"We have been incredibly lucky on this one. The flooding is still serious, particularly in Leogane, because of the cholera situation .... For once Haiti has been lucky," said OCHA spokeswoman Imogen Wall.
In the capital, many people went about their business on Friday amid light showers that turned heavier in the afternoon. At a camp near the airport, women sat selling bananas, charcoal and other products outside their tents.
"Heavy rains did not come but I'm still not happy because my home has lots of holes in it and a lot of water got inside," said Solange Louis-Charles, 40, as she washed plates outside her house, which was constructed of corrugated iron and tarpaulin.
Out of the 1.3 million quake survivors in the capital's temporary camps, only some were able to evacuate to more secure structures with family or friends, or in schools or government shelters.
Wind from Tomas blew down some tents at camps for displaced people in the southern coastal city at Jacmel, and a river burst its banks in Leogane, pouring water into the town west the capital. U.N. troops were working with the government to evacuate residents to higher ground on Friday.
At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), Tomas was west of Haiti, about 90 miles east of Guantanamo, Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was headed into the Atlantic and across the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas.
Its top winds had dropped to 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour) but it was expected to strengthen again before starting to fizzle on Sunday. Tomas was still a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, but just barely.
MAJOR DISRUPTION BEFORE ELECTIONS
Forecasters warned that rain from the ragged storm still could produce flash flooding and life-threatening mudslides in deforested Haiti, where impoverished peasants have for decades cut down trees for firewood and left the hills and mountains bare and eroded.
Rains, floods and mudslides from tropical storms and hurricanes in 2004 and 2008 killed several thousand people in Haiti, especially in the northwest coastal city of Gonaives.
International donors had enough blankets, water containers and hygiene kits to care for 125,000 people and more could be brought in if needed, said Mark Ward, the director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID.
The World Food Program had stockpiled enough food to feed more than a million people for six weeks. The USS Iwo Jima was ready to send in helicopters, landing craft, engineers and public health officials once the storm passes, Ward said.
With the storm threat and the spreading cholera epidemic, Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before November 28 presidential and legislative elections. Electoral officials have not postponed the vote.
The United Nations said the storm almost certainly will exacerbate a cholera epidemic that has killed 442 people and sickened more than 6,700 so far.
Tomas swept across the Caribbean's eastern islands as a hurricane last weekend, killing at least five people in St. Lucia. Several more people were missing.
Rains forced the evacuation of several thousand people in eastern Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, authorities said on Friday. Hundreds of homes in the Dominican Republic were affected by flooding.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba, officials warned the 174 foreign captives there a storm was on the way.
The popular tourist island of Jamaica appeared to have largely escaped major damage, and there were no immediate reports of deaths, officials there said.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Horace Helps in Kingston, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo, Jeff Franks in Havana, Andrew Quinn in Washington and Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara)