Flood-prone Haitian city of Gonaives under water

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Heavy rains triggered by Tropical Storm Hanna triggered severe flooding and killed at least 10 people in the Haitian city of Gonaives, where thousands died four years ago during a similar catastrophe, officials said.

"The city is flooded and there are parts where the water gets to 2 meters (6.5 feet)," said Alta Jean-Baptiste, the head of the Caribbean country's civil protection agency.

"A lot of people have been climbing onto the tops of their houses since last night to escape the flooding."

Gonaives police commissioner Ernst Dorfeulle said much of the population of the city -- thought to be Haiti's fourth largest -- had been forced to climb onto their rooftops.

"The police have seen 10 bodies but the death toll must be be much heavier," Dorfeulle told Reuters by telephone.

"It is a very serious situation. Those people on the top of their roofs are being lashed by rain and cannot be rescued."

Eyewitnesses in Gonaives, a northern port city, said roads there were completely impassable.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, is extremely vulnerable to disastrous flash floods because most of its hillsides have been stripped of trees by people desperate for charcoal to use as cooking fuel.

Mudslides and flooding caused by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004 killed around 3,000 people in Gonaives. Spring floods earlier that year were blamed for another 2,000 deaths near the border with the Dominican Republic.

The passage last week of Hurricane Gustav left at least 76 people dead in Haiti while Tropical Storm Fay in August killed more than 50, most of them when a crowded bus was swept away as it tried to cross a rain-swollen river.

Haitian Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime was on the way to Gonaives to supervise rescue operations, Jean-Baptiste said.

"The hospital in Gonaives is completely flooded," she said. "We are now evacuating the patients. For now we are taking them to a higher place in the hospital but they cannot stay there."

Jean-Baptiste said the government had asked United Nations peacekeepers in the country to organize a flight to Gonaives to carry firefighters capable of carrying out search and rescue operations.

Tropical Storm Hanna was located some distance away from Haiti over the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday. But it was a large, messy storm and Haitian meteorologists said heavy rains falling over the country were an indirect result of Hanna. (Writing by Michael Christie, Editing by Jane Sutton)


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