PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Earthquake-hit Haiti escaped a fresh disaster threatened by Hurricane Tomas, but the storm caused flooding that killed eight people and increased the contagion threat from a deadly cholera epidemic, the government and aid workers said on Saturday.
Amid widespread relief that the hurricane largely spared crowded camps in the Haitian capital housing 1.3 million quake survivors, the international humanitarian operation was turning its attention back to the two-week-old epidemic, which has killed just over 500 people and sickened more than 7,000.
“We do expect the infection rate to jump up due to the flooding and to the bad sanitation conditions in many areas,” Christian Lindmeier, spokesman in Haiti for the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, told Reuters.
“Cholera is a water-borne disease and so additional water means additional risk,” said Lindmeier.
Tomas skirted Haiti on Friday, flooding some coastal towns, forcing thousands from their homes and soaking camps for displaced people in the capital Port-au-Prince with rain.
Eight people died as a result of the hurricane, the government said on Saturday, and about 10,000 people left their homes voluntarily to escape floodwaters.
That was a light storm 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 hit harder by Tomas, an unpredictable late hurricane in the busy 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.
“We have avoided the worst,” said Elisabeth Diaz, spokeswoman for the U. N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After raking Haiti, Tomas swept over the Turks and Caicos Islands early on Saturday as a tropical storm. There were no immediate reports of serious damage or casualties.
By late Saturday, Tomas had regained hurricane strength over the open Atlantic, but posed 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.
The cholera epidemic, which has affected five of Haiti’s provinces, still appeared to be spreading.
Haiti’s health ministry released updated figures showing 501 people had died through November 4, up from 442 on November 3.
The deadly diarrheal disease can be easily treated by oral rehydration if caught in time. 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. There was also flooding in Les Cayes, Jacmel and Gonaives.
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.
Thousands of children in Leogane were now at increased risk of diseases like cholera, diarrhea and malaria, said Gary Shaye, country director for Save the Children in Haiti
Haiti’s government and the United Nations appealed to donors on Friday for nearly $19 million to cover urgent needs.
Dispatched to help with relief operations, the U.S. amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima was ready to send in helicopters, landing craft, engineers and medics.
Haitian President Rene Preval and the top U.N. humanitarian coordinator in the country, Nigel Fisher, inspected the flood-affected areas by helicopter.
Fisher said the hurricane damaged the coffee crop and other crops like bananas, and urged the international community to focus again fully on Haiti’s arduous post-quake rebuilding.
“This (the storm) has taken our eye off the ball but we have to get back to it now. ... The emphasis absolutely has to be on recovery,” he said, urging that homeless quake survivors be gradually integrated back into their communities.
In Port-au-Prince, still scarred by the January 12 quake, hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors sat out the storm under rain-drenched tents and tarpaulins. “My tent has lots of holes in it, so we got wet,” said Renette Dornis, 38.
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.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Horace Helps in Kingston, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo, Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Todd Eastham