The water started to rise, and it did not stop

By Kristie van de Wetering
Rising flood waters from Hurricane Ike overtook streets and communities near Gonaives, Haiti.

"The situation is at its breaking point in Gonaïves," reported Oxfam's Charlie Rowley early Sunday, just back from the devastated town. "There are very few, if any, coping mechanisms left for the people there. Whatever food and clean water that was in the town is gone. And no new food or supplies are coming in. If food and supplies don't reach the people in the next 48 hours, we will have a situation of epic proportions on our hands."

Almost one week after Tropical Storm Hanna descended on Haiti, getting food and supplies to Gonaïves has been virtually impossible. The main road from Port-au-Prince was cut when a bridge collapsed just outside of St. Marc, and the road is cut off from the north, as the bridge in the neighboring town of Ennery was washed away. The alternative route through the Central Plateau proved difficult for large trucks carrying supplies, and rough waters have delayed planned shipments of humanitarian aid via boat.

According to UN estimates, 60,000 people are said to be in temporary shelters. "The conditions of those in shelters are horrific," says Rowley. "There is no food, water, cooking materials, basic toiletries or medical supplies, sleeping mats, or latrines. People are in desperate need of anything and everything. Many people have injuries to their feet, he adds, because they are having to wade through the water without shoes.

People are fleeing the town by the hundreds—on foot, in cars, whatever way they can. Some are moving up to the small plateau to the north of Gonaïves, others are going south.

Ogè Léandre, a 45-year-old father of six, explains how he and his family barely managed to get to the shelters in time. "The waters from Tropical Storm Jeanne [2004] did not reach us, so we did not think that we needed to evacuate this time. We packed up everything off the ground and stacked it on top of tables and beds. But then the water started to rise, and it did not stop. So we decided to go to the shelter. But the water was already so high and strong that I could not hold onto one of my children, and the water swept her away. Luckily someone was there to grab her. We got to the roof of the shelter, and about an hour later watched as our entire house was washed away."

In the meantime, Hurricane Ike grazed the northern coast of Haiti early Sunday morning, bringing more rain to Gonaïves and other towns in the Valley. The rain washed out the bridge in Mirebalais, and massive flooding and deaths are being reported in the town of Cabaret, just north of Port-au-Prince.

"We cannot wait for the roads and bridges to be repaired," says Oxfam's Humanitarian Coordinator Kone Amara. "We must get supplies into Gonaïves now. We are in contact with the United Nations' peacekeeping mission here to see how we can begin delivering aid with helicopters. The World Food Program is also preparing shipments by boat once the seas have calmed."

While Oxfam continues to evaluate the damage caused by Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna in other parts of the country, the agency is scaling up its first-response efforts to Gonaïves, where it has a shipment of drinking water and relief materials ready for distribution.