In Haitian city, a hard life is left harder by storm.

The disastrous flooding that hit this city two months ago is now a searing white cloud of dust, beaten into the sky by an army of mopeds.

It is damp earth preventing the poorest of poor from making charcoal for a living. It is cheap cinderblock eroded like rotten molars, mud-crusted mattresses and clothes, weeds and debris heaped on crumpled tin rooftops.

In the 2 months since Tropical Storm Jeanne inundated this city and killed nearly 3,000 people, residents are coming to a resigned acceptance that life here will be hungrier, dirtier and more dangerous for years to come.

The immediate fears of typhoid, cholera and famine never came to pass, but mere subsistence -- which has always been a struggle in this crumbling port city -- is going to be a long, bleak slog out of the mud.

The recovery has begun in earnest. Children are back in school. Merchants are selling used shoes and other hand-me-downs on the sidewalks. Tractors are scooping up towering mounds of debris, dislodging the pigs that used much of the city as a sty.

Relief agencies have brought in tons of rice and installed giant water tanks to replace the city's system of wells and hand pumps, now buried in mud and hopelessly polluted. The Red Cross set up a tent hospital to replace the destroyed General Hospital.

''We thought it was going to be a lot worse,'' said David Bellemare, head nurse at the tent hospital, which treats 300 to 400 people a day. Gastroenteritis from overflowing sewers and polluted drinking water is the most common problem. ''No asthma or respiratory problems from the dust yet,'' he said.

Waves of violence.

Doctors also see a lot of gunshot wounds, sometimes several a day. In the past two months, untold numbers of people have been injured or killed in gang warfare and robberies.

The violence has come in waves. By the end of October, food convoys were being looted and some aid organizations pulled out of the city. In early November, the rebels who helped oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide earlier this year clashed with police and forced them to abandon the station. This city of 200,000 people -- four hours by axle-breaking road from the capital -- was drifting toward a disastrous isolation.

But the atmosphere has now quieted down -- a little. Police officers returned under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers, as did the convoys of food from Port-au-Prince.

''The situation remains precarious,'' said Guy Gauvreau, Haiti's director for the World Food Program, ``because of the armed gang that is still in power in Gonaives.''

As of last week, the World Food Program has delivered 3,126 metric tons of food to the city.

Daily struggle.

All the help has prevented starvation, but it has done little to relieve the day-to-day misery.

Clotide Dorime, 50, just last week finished shoveling the dreck out of her home. Dirt and pebbles still cover her windowsill. Weeds and shreds of trash bags are caught in the joints above her walls, eight feet high.

Several weeks ago, she sent her seven children into the countryside to live with relatives.

''The rain took everything I had,'' she said. ``There's no life here.''

Dorime said she can't get food from aid groups because she lost her identification papers in the flood. Neighbors angrily nod in agreement, echoing the complaint.

Shacks full of mud.

Dorime's neighborhood -- Riel Wawa -- is a warren of cinderblock shacks, many still full of mud and mosquitoes. In a vacant lot, standing water has bloomed neon green with algae. In an easement where a wall collapsed, the bodies of two of their neighbors still rest under the rubble. The road in is impassable.

''This is where I live,'' said Bertone Pierre, 23, on the rooftop of a neighbor's home. There are six battered mattresses on the roof, once their refuge from flooding, now their only mudless space. Across the neighborhood are dozens more, surrounded by buckets, furniture and toys.

''There is nowhere else to go,'' he said -- of the roof and the city.

His friend, Pierre Dateuse, points to the road. ``Traffic can't get through. No one cleans it up. The government does everything for Port-au-Prince, but it does nothing for Gonaives.''

As he spoke, crews were clearing debris on the main thoroughfares with big tractors. But the neighborhoods looked mostly like his, as if the flood had hit a week ago.

In a little hamlet just outside town, a mother of four named Enid Michelle now lives on a mud flat, the skin cracked like old makeup, but moist underneath. Her wells are ruined. Her home tilts absurdly in the direction of the flood.

''Everything we ever had was taken away by the storm,'' she said.

Michelle is part of an extended family that lives in this cluster of huts on the road south to the capital. They make their living raising a few goats and pigs, and hunting the hills for sticks to burn for charcoal, which they sell in the market.


Only a few of them understand that the deforestation of hillsides for charcoal is what made floodwaters move so devastatingly quickly on Sept. 18, but they say they have no choice.

''That's the only thing we know how to do,'' Michelle said.

Now, her family is stuck. The ground is too wet to burn the wood in the holes they dig. Their livestock washed away. They spend their time plastering the stick frames of their huts with gray mud and going to town for water.

They don't plan to move into one of the refugee camps set up around the city. This is their home.

The matriarch of the village, Sylvia Loren, has lived here for 80 years. She remembers when the hills were ''beautiful'' and full of trees. Now they look like giant moldering anthills.

In all Loren's time, she has never seen such a flood. ''This was the first time, the very first time,'' she said. ``Only God knows why.''

[Source: Miami Herald, Gonaives, 08Dec04]

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