Haiti dodges storm disaster, but urgent needs remain
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Earthquake-hit Haiti escaped a fresh disaster threatened by Hurricane Tomas, but the storm caused flooding, forced thousands from their homes and increased humanitarian challenges posed by a cholera epidemic, aid workers said on Saturday.
But government officials and relief workers were relieved that the hurricane, now a tropical storm over the Atlantic, largely spared crowded camps in the Haitian capital housing 1.3 million quake survivors.
Tomas skirted the west of Haiti on Friday, flooding some coastal towns and soaking camps for displaced people in the capital Port-au-Prince with overnight rain.
Six people died, all outside the capital, the government said on Saturday, revising the figure of seven dead it released on Friday. About 10,000 people left their homes voluntarily to escape floodwaters, it said.
That was a light toll compared with the destruction inflicted by hurricanes and storms that battered the Western Hemisphere's poorest county in 2004 and 2008, killing several thousand people. More than 250,000 people died in the January 12 earthquake that struck the poor Caribbean country.
United Nations officials said Haiti was lucky it was not harder hit by Tomas, an unpredictable late hurricane in the busy 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.
"People were well prepared, there was good cooperation between the government and the aid community and we have avoided the worst," said Elisabeth Diaz, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After raking Haiti with rains, waves and wind, Tomas swept over the Turks and Caicos islands early on Saturday. There were no immediate reports of serious damage or casualties.
By midday Saturday, Tomas was moving northeastward over the open Atlantic, posing no threat to land.
While sparing Haiti widespread destruction or mass casualties, the hurricane still created a major disruption weeks before presidential and legislative elections set for November 28. Electoral officials have not postponed the vote.
With flooding reported in a number of locations, aid workers were worried that a two-week cholera epidemic that has killed more than 440 people and sickened more than 6,700 could worsen. The deadly diarrheal disease is transmitted by contaminated water and food.
Relief agencies were rushing clean drinking water and food to areas affected by the floods.
One of the worst hit zones was Leogane, a town west of Port-au-Prince badly damaged in the January earthquake. Some 90,000 people there were already living in tent camps.
Flooding was also reported in the coastal towns of Les Cayes, Jacmel and Gonaives.
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The British charity Save the Children said floodwaters in Leogane had affected some 35,000 people, turning streets into "rivers," destroying possessions and washing out tents.
"People here are telling us that they need food and clean water. This town was decimated by the earthquake and it's essential we get help to these families fast," said Gary Shaye, country director for Save the Children in Haiti.
Thousands of children in Leogane were now at increased risk of diseases like cholera, diarrhea and malaria, he said.
Haiti's government and the United Nations appealed to donors on Friday for nearly $19 million to cover urgent needs.
Dispatched by the U.S. military to help with Haiti relief operations, the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima was ready to send in helicopters, landing craft, engineers and public health officials, U.S. officials said.
"Now the priority is to help the people," Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said. President Rene Preval was touring the south coast by helicopter to assess damage.
In Port-au-Prince, still scarred by the January 12 earthquake, hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors sat out the storm under rain-drenched tents and tarpaulins.
"The situation is bad. My tent has lots of holes in it, so we got wet," said Renette Dornis, 38, who lives with her three children in a tent at the Acra 1 camp in the capital.
Jamaica escaped major damage from Tomas, but rains forced the evacuation of several thousand people in eastern Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbor on Hispaniola island.