MAPOU, Haiti – The only evidence that a village of 3,400 people once existed here, besides the survivors who linger around the shores of the lake that used to be their home, is the occasional rooftop peeking out of the earth-colored water.
Crowds of people stand around aimlessly, their eyes fixed closely on the swirling blades of military helicopters that come and go, their only hope for survival.
Many went without food or clean water from Sunday night, when a flash flood smothered most of the village, until Wednesday, when the first supplies were flown in by the U.S.-led multinational military peacekeeping force deployed in Haiti.
”There’s nothing to eat here,” said Amanzia Ville, 37, whose 5-year-old son drowned near her Sunday night. “I lost everything, my cow, my livestock, my child, everything.”
But at least Ville was alive, unlike the 1,000 or so other Mapou villagers presumed drowned and swept away by the swirling waters that unleashed one of the deadliest natural disasters in Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Haitian officials said Friday that their official death toll stood at 579, but that included only a handful of bodies recovered in Mapou. The Dominican toll was 442 confirmed dead, with a nearly equal number of people still missing.
Mapou, until Sunday night a quiet rural mountain village nestled in a valley about 40 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince, was the worst hit area in Haiti, according to military officials who have visited several places.
For those first few days following the disaster, it was a forsaken place.
The roads that lead here were washed away by the same currents that killed so many. International aid agencies could not get here by land. The dead went unburied. The injured clung to life, without medical treatment.
Survivors said the flash flood at about 3 a.m. Monday morning caught them by fatal surprise because a natural dam that had been holding back the river on higher ground burst under the pressure caused by intense rainfalls.
Ville said that by the time the water began to rush into the villagers’ homes, the only ones who survived were those who ran to higher ground or clung to trees and roofs.
”Nobody here knew how to swim,” she said.
As Ville stood in line to receive rations from the U.S. military, scuffles and arguments broke out around her among survivors clambering for first dibs.
Edgar Pierre, sitting in a waiting room at a makeshift hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross with his two babies, said he won’t easily forget how he lost his wife — within inches of his grasp.
When the water rushed into their house, he grabbed his 7-month-old and 2-year-old daughters and lifted them onto the roof. But the back door of his house burst open and the chest-deep rapids began gushing through his bedroom.
He reached for his wife as she floated by him.
”I missed her,” he said. “She was swept away.”
His daughter suffered a gash between her eyes. But she lived.
”I have nothing,” he said. “All I can do is depend on the kindness of strangers.”
The floods could not have come at a worse time for Haiti.
Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced out of power in February. An interim prime minister has little authority. The government is all but bankrupt. And the U.S.-led multinational force deployed in February is scheduled to begin returning home June 1, to be replaced by a U.N. peacekeeping force.
U.S. military officials said that had they not been present in the country, the Haitian government would not have had the means to help its people.
”Because of our assets and resources, it was something we’ve been able to do that probably would not have been possible if our forces were not here,” said spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan.
Lapan said the military first flew into Fond-Verrettes, another annihilated town close to the Dominican border, on Monday to assess the area and delivered fresh water the next day. But it could not send any supplies to Mapou until Thursday because bad weather hindered helicopter flights there.
By Friday, the foreign troops had delivered thousands of pounds of bread, rice, beans, cooking oil, hygiene products and water to the affected Haitian villages.
Many in the crowd had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and whatever debris found on the fringes of the flood that may help them make a new start — pots, pans, shoes, hats.
No one has yet determined where the people of these villages will rebuild homes, plant crops, raise animals, or even bury their dead.
Some say they will leave the area. But many say that once the waters recede, they will rebuild.
Marie Emmanuel, 55, burst into a hymn praising God as she waited in line to collect rations from the international military coalition.
”I lost everything I had,” she said. “I’m in other people’s hands now because I have nothing.’