By Joseph Guyler Delva
MAPOU, Haiti (Reuters) – When the flood came to the Haitian town of Mapou in the middle of the night, 16-year-old Santa Modeus thought she would die until she rammed into the tree that saved her life.
Modeus told her tale of survival on Friday as foreign troops and international aid workers rushed 20 tons of rice, cereal and vegetables to the submerged village, crushed by the torrential rains and floods that savaged the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and killed an estimated 2,000 people.
Sinking as the torrent swept her along, Modeus latched onto a tree and climbed out of the water, where she clung to the branches for hours until rescue came toward midday. Her mother and two siblings died, among the 1,000 people officials say were killed in Mapou.
“It’s God that saved me. While I was under water, I was saying that I was going to die,” she said, nursing a wound on her right arm. “I went into a tree, and I hung onto it, and I climbed it and that’s what saved me.”
A village of several thousand people in a valley about 25 miles southeast of Haiti’s capital, Mapou remained under water and inaccessible by road on Friday as rescuers sped water, purification tablets and emergency food rations by helicopter to thousands of stranded people.
Witnesses said corpses of flood victims trapped for days in submerged homes were beginning to float to the surface of the lake that covered Mapou. Only a few rooftops were visible above the water.
Aid workers say nearly 300 bodies were recovered in Mapou, while a local government official put the death toll at 1,000, with hundreds of bodies trapped under water or buried in mud.
“We are concerned that the death toll could go even beyond 1,000, given the fact there are a lot of bodies either floating on the water or buried under the mud that have not been recovered yet,” said Guy Gauvreau, director of the World Food Program in Haiti.
Villagers said those who survived clung to the tops of trees or climbed to rooftops, from which they were plucked by men who fashioned a crude rescue raft from a door lashed to two palm tree trunks.
Fedner Salomond, a 39-year-old father of three, said he faced a terrible choice when flood waters rushed into his home in the dark. He had one of his children in his arms but was unable to reach the other two before making a desperate climb to the roof.
“The one in my hands, I had to let go. I could not climb with him, because I was going to die,” Salomond said. “It was very sad; my heart was breaking, but I had to make a choice whether both of us died or I was saved.”
The death toll in Haiti stood at about 1,800, including the 1,000 reported deaths in Mapou, hundreds more in surrounding villages in the southeast and some 160 in Fond Verettes, a town near the Dominican border. About 350 people were killed in the Dominican Republic, most in the border town of Jimani.
Just three months after a bloody rebellion that ousted its president and government, Haiti was confronting its worst natural disaster in a decade with the help of U.S., French and other foreign troops sent by the United Nations (news – web sites) for security.
Military helicopters meant for peacekeeping duties were providing critical transport to remote villages. Some flights were grounded by thunderstorms on Thursday, and bad weather threatened the rescue effort again on Friday.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Most of its 8 million people scratch out a living from the land and per-capita annual income is about $300.
Haitians have cut down virtually all of the nation’s trees to make charcoal for cooking fuel, leaving the barren land vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides.
Haiti’s new leader, Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, announced plans on Friday to tackle the problem. “I have plans to speak to the members of my cabinet … and maybe set up an emergency plan, invite students to take part in a plan to reforest the country,” Latortue told a news conference on a visit to Mexico.
“The main cause (of deforestation) is that Haitians like to use wood for cooking, as an energy source. We have been doing it for years and now it is impossible to continue,” the prime minister said at a summit of European, Latin American and Caribbean leaders in the city of Guadalajara.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Jimenez in Jimani)