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Relief flows to Caribbean

Prayers and relief were flowing from U.S. churches and disaster response groups as the death toll and urgent need rose dramatically in the Caribbean this week.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | May 28, 2004


"I visited Gorman (near the Dominican border) where the river has left its bank and destroyed surrounding plantations for miles."

—Burton Joseph


Prayers and relief were flowing from U.S. churches and disaster response groups as the death toll and urgent need rose dramatically in the Caribbean this week.

Floods have killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and as many as 1,500 homes may have been destroyed.

Hundreds of people are missing and officials fear the death toll could reach 2,000 people.

Reaching remote villages in the Dominican Republic and Haiti will be a challenge, said relief leaders. Mudslides have stranded thousands of survivors, and more rain was on the way.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) shipped some 8,000 tons of food to the town of Mapou in southern Haiti. The WFP was considering using barges to bring more food to coastal villages. In a publicly released statement, a WFP spokesman called the need "extreme."

Church World Service (CWS), United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Action by Churches Together (ACT), Baptist World Aid, Episcopal Relief and Development, Catholic Relief Services, Week of Compassion of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran World Relief, and many other faith-based groups are responding.

"I visited Gorman (near the Dominican border) where the river has left its bank and destroyed surrounding plantations for miles. It's hard for people there to survive since they are homeless and mud and water are everywhere," reported Burton Joseph, program officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti.

The Rt. Rev. Julio Holguin, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic, also reported on the crisis and outreach to survivors. "This is a time for solidarity - when brothers and sisters are in need, our hands must provide material and spiritual support," said Bishop Holguin. "We need to purchase food and medicine as well as blankets, sheets, and clothing which many families lost in the flooding."

Officials estimated that some 10,000 people in 26 villages surrounding Mapou are in urgent need of help.

U.S. Marines delivered drinking water and chlorine tablets to hundreds of people in Mapou. The town's single health clinic was underwater.

In another stricken Haitian town, Fond Verrettes, U.N. officials brought plastic tarpaulins for shelter Thursday, while a team from Doctors Without Borders treated injured villagers. The WFP distributed 13 tons of food in the town.

Haiti has become a particularly hazardous place for flooding and mudslides because its impoverished people constantly fell trees to make charcoal, leaving the country nearly entirely deforested. The government has almost no resources to cope with disasters.

The Dominican government indicated it plans to spray disinfectant by plane over the town of Jimani to keep decomposing bodies from spreading disease.

If bodies still underwater are not recovered soon, there is a grave risk of an epidemic, officials said. There is also an urgent need to move people away from areas that are likely to be hit by imminent flooding when new rain falls.

New York City-based CWS and its partners are planning a response that will address both immediate and long-term needs in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

CWS partner Social Service of Dominican Churches reported earlier this week that the Soleil River, on the Haitian side of the island Hispanola, grew rapidly due to rains and that the river, known as "Rio Blanco" in the Dominican Republic, had been "dry" for more than 100 years - which is why the storm and resulting flooding stunned residents in affected areas.

CWS, already responding to needs associated with the civil unrest in Haiti, has reallocated a food shipment - already meant to address the humanitarian crisis in Haiti - to flood survivors in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

ACT, a global coalition of church-based relief organizations, was working with its partners in Haiti, including Christian Aid, Fédération Protestante d'Haiti, Lutheran World Federation and Service Chrétien d'Haiti report that information they are receiving is still unreliable due to the difficulties in accessing the stricken areas.

ACT has activated its rapid response fund to purchase relief items. ACT members in Haiti are also being supported with funds from the local German embassy. ACT will issue an appeal for funds, and the Church of Sweden, ACT Netherlands, Norwegian Church Aid, Methodist Relief and Development Fund in England, and the Week of Compassion Office of the Christian Church (Disciples) in the USA have already announced their support for the forthcoming appeal.

U.S.-based UMCOR has a longstanding track record of working in Haiti, and is supporting the Methodist Church of Haiti as it offers programs in health care, spiritual care, school fees and hot lunches.

It is estimated that at least 830 houses have been damaged or destroyed in the Dominican Republic, reported ACT.

An ACT member in the Dominican Republic, Social Service of the Dominican Churches, was on the ground assessing the situation with the assistance of emergency relief staff from Church World Service and its partners. Norwegian Church Aid was also supporting ACT's response.

The International Red Cross was assisting with the search for bodies, and was also assessing damages and trying to provide medical treatment for the wounded.

The worst of the floods struck early Monday morning, when three days of rain triggered flashfloods that washed away entire villages.

The floods that have hit the region are the deadliest since 1994, when Tropical Storm Gordon triggered mudslides that buried more than 800 Haitians. In 1999, more than 15,000 people died in Venezuela when flooding and mudslides struck there.


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