Haiti 'lucky' as Tomas heads north

Haiti 'lucky' as Tomas heads north

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Hurricane Tomas pushed northward from Haiti on Saturday, leaving villagers to mop up, evacuees to return to their tents and most of the population relieved that the country did not suffer what could have been its first big disaster since the January earthquake.

The storm’s western track caused widespread floods, wind damage along the far edge of Haiti’s coast and is blamed for the deaths of at least eight people.

It was a serious blow, but far better than had been feared in a nation where storms have been known to kill thousands, and more than one million quake survivors were living under tarpaulins and tents.

“It really didn’t dump a lot of rain on us, so we got very lucky,” said Steve McAndrew, Haiti earthquake relief coordinator for the American Red Cross.

Haitian civil protection officials were still receiving reports from the remote mountainous countryside and the storm’s outer bands continued dropping rain on the north. Floodwaters covered streets in Leogane, the town closest to the epicentre of the January 12 quake, and about a foot of water stood on a thoroughfare of the flood-prone northwestern city of Gonaives. Mountain towns were cut off by flooded roads and landslides, including one reported by UN peacekeepers in the mountains near the southern port of Jacmel.

But it was clear that the most-feared catastrophes were averted – earthquake camps were not torn apart by wind, storm surge did not drown the oceanside slums, the La Quinte River, which has twice drowned Gonaives above the first stories of its buildings since 2004, stayed in its bed.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported shortages in shelter material and other items, including rehydration salts for a cholera epidemic that officials were concerned the floods could spread. That danger remains, and medical workers were working across affected areas on Saturday to contain the spread of the outbreak.

Despite official instructions to abandon earthquake camps in the capital, the vast majority of people remained, leaving evacuation buses to drive away empty. Many were concerned that the storm was a pretext to evict them, or that bandits would steal their belongings while they were away.

At the government’s flagship relocation camp, Corail-Cesselesse, chaos reigned long into the night. Disorganization between various aid groups and confusion among the nearly 8,000 residents sparked a near-riot as the evacuation got under way. The residents had moved to the remote location with the promise that it would protect them from storms, but the government-selected, internationally approved site turned out to be a dangerous flood plain.

Tomas weakened into a tropical storm early on Saturday but later regained its hurricane strength with to winds of 75 mph, according to the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami. The hurricane was located about 250 miles north-northeast of Grand Turk Island and was expected to continue moving to the northeast into open water. All storm warnings were discontinued.

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