PORT-AU-PRINCE, (Reuters) – Hurricane Tomas soaked crowded Haitian earthquake survivors’ camps with overnight rain as the re-strengthened storm headed north today between Cuba and Haiti amid fears of flooding and landslides.
One person died overnight trying to cross a river in the Grande-Anse region southwest of the capital and some flooding was reported in the south coast town of Les Cayes, Alta Jean-Baptiste, Haiti’s civil protection director, said.
In the capital Port-au-Prince, still scarred from a devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, hundreds of thousands of homeless quake survivors spent the night under rain-drenched tent and tarpaulin shelters in muddy encampments. The quake killed more than a quarter of a million people.
With the passage of Tomas, the United Nations and relief agencies have gone on maximum alert to prepare for the risk of another humanitarian catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, which is already reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic on top of the widespread quake destruction.
But there were no immediate reports of serious storm destruction or major casualties.
“We have escaped pretty lightly so far. It’s not as bad as we had feared,” Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration said after receiving reports from field offices in different parts of the country.
Out of the 1.3 million quake survivors in the capital’s temporary camps, only some were able to evacuate to more secure structures with family or friends, or in schools or government shelters.
Wind from Tomas blew over some tents at camps for displaced people in the southern coastal city at Jacmel and swollen seas caused a limited amount of flooding on the south coast, the government and aid workers said.
At 11 a.m. (1500 GMT), Tomas was moving northeastward to the west of Haiti, about 140 miles (230 km) from Port-au-Prince, packing top sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (140 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It had earlier re-intensified over the Caribbean sea into a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, heading on a track that would take it near or over eastern Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas.
MAJOR DISRUPTION BEFORE ELECTIONS
In the capital, Haitians long used to harsh tropical weather were shrugging off the overnight rain.
“It rained but it was a normal night and I slept,” said ice cream seller Zaporte N’Zanou, who passed the night in a tent in the big Champs de Mars quake survivors’ camp in front of the wrecked presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
But forecasters were still warned heavy rainfall from Tomas could produce flash flooding and life-threatening mudslides in Haiti, where massive deforestation — caused largely by impoverished peasants cutting firewood for decades — has left hills and mountains bare and eroded.
Rains, floods and mudslides from tropical storms and hurricanes in 2004 and 2008 killed several thousand people in Haiti, especially in the northwest coastal city of Gonaives.
Yesterday, hours before the approach of Tomas, Haitian President Rene Preval went on national radio to urge citizens to take precautions and follow evacuation recommendations.
With the storm threat and the spreading cholera epidemic, Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections. Electoral officials have not moved to postpone the vote.
Camp dwellers had hunkered down for a miserable night as rain fell steadily. “We haven’t taken precautions. We are in God’s hands,” said Ave Lise Mesila, in her tarpaulin tent.
The United Nations said the storm almost certainly will exacerbate a cholera epidemic that has killed 442 people and sickened more than 6,700 so far.
Tomas swept across the Caribbean’s eastern islands as a hurricane last weekend, killing at least five people in St. Lucia. Several more people were missing.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in east Cuba, officials warned the 174 foreign captives detained there a storm was on the way.