Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
A man carries a child while wading across a flooded street during the passing of Hurricane Tomas in Leogane, Haiti, on Friday.
updated 11/7/2010 1:14:36 AM ET 2010-11-07T06:14:36

Hurricane Tomas pushed northward from Haiti on Saturday, leaving villagers to mop up, evacuees to return to their tents and most everyone relieved that the country did not suffer what could have been its first big disaster since the January earthquake.

The storm's western track caused widespread floods, wind damage along the far edge of Haiti's coast and is blamed for the deaths of at least eight people. It was a serious blow, but far better than had been feared in a nation where storms have been known to kill thousands, and more than 1 million quake survivors were living under tarps and tents.

"It really didn't dump a lot of rain on us, so we got very lucky," said Steve McAndrew, Haiti earthquake relief coordinator for the American Red Cross.

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Haitian civil protection officials were still receiving reports from the remote mountainous countryside and the storm's outer bands continued dropping rain on the north. Floodwaters covered streets in Leogane, the town closest to the epicenter of the Jan. 12 quake, and about a foot of water stood on a thoroughfare of the flood-prone northwestern city of Gonaives. Mountain towns were cut off by flooded roads and landslides, including one reported by U.N. peacekeepers in the mountains near the southern port of Jacmel.

But it was clear that the most-feared catastrophes were averted: Earthquake camps were not torn apart by wind, storm surge did not drown the oceanside slums, the La Quinte River — which has twice drowned Gonaives above the first stories of its buildings since 2004 — stayed in its bed.

U.S. Marine helicopters buzzed the southern coast from the USS Iwo Jima, reporting back good news.

"It sounds like from what everybody's seeing that it's no worse than after a major storm here. There's some standing water out there but nothing's washed away," U.S. embassy spokesman Jon Piechowski said.

Aid workers and the government in part credited mitigation efforts — for instance a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded effort to dredge and reinforce the La Quinte after the last catastrophic flood there in 2008. Haitian civil protection coordinator Nadia Lochard, who oversees Port-au-Prince, said lives were saved because people listened to the department's advice.

But given the tumult during last-minute preparations of the storm, it is clear things could have been much worse if the storm had veered to the east.

The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported shortages in shelter material and other items, including rehydration salts for a cholera epidemic that officials were concerned the floods could spread. That danger remains, and medical workers were working across affected areas Saturday to contain the spread of the outbreak.

Despite official instructions to abandon earthquake camps in the capital, the vast majority of people remained in their tarps, leaving evacuation buses to drive away empty. Many were concerned that the storm was a pretext to evict them, or that bandits would steal their belongings while they were away.

Image: Flooded street in Haiti
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
People wade through a flooded street during the passing of Hurricane Tomas in Leogane, Haiti, on Friday.

In camps that did flood in Leogane — and the capital in post-storm rains that fell Friday night — most people left only at the last minute. Others remained, surrounded by rising waters and yelling for help.

At the government's flagship relocation camp, Corail-Cesselesse, chaos reigned long into the night. Disorganization between various aid groups and confusion among the nearly 8,000 residents sparked a near-riot as the evacuation got under way. The residents had moved to the remote location with the promise that it would protect them from storms, but the government-selected, internationally approved site turned out to be a dangerous flood plain.

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Once the evacuation got under way, several thousand people were packed into an abandoned hospital named for the wife of a former dictator. A loud crash at the back of the building around midnight sparked shouts of "earthquake!" and a panic ensued. Three people were injured and had to be sent to a real hospital.

"They were evacuating people but they weren't telling them where they were going," said Abenel Rezuis, a 30-year-old resident of the camp.

Tomas weakened into a tropical storm early Saturday but regained its hurricane strength later in the day with winds of 80 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Early Sunday, the hurricane was about 275 miles north-northeast of Grand Turk Island and was expected to continue moving to the northeast into open water. All storm warnings were discontinued.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: In Haiti, assessing Tomas’ damage

  1. Transcript of: In Haiti, assessing Tomas’ damage

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: A bit closer to home now to Haiti , where US military helicopters today began flyovers to assess the extent of the damage from Hurricane Tomas . Tonight Tomas is a tropical storm over the Atlantic , but it has left behind some significant damage and suffering. NBC 's Mark Potter is in Port -au-Prince

    tonight. Mark: And good evening to you, Lester . The storm has passed, and most of Haiti was unhurt. But a few areas were damaged and are now recovering. In Leogane , Haiti , the flood is receding now. But the town's center is still covered by running water from the rains of Hurricane Tomas . With UN peacekeepers patrolling the streets, residents try to resume their normal lives as children play in the muddy water . Leogane was at the epicenter of the Haitian earthquake last January, and most of the town was destroyed. Now a tent camp for residents made homeless by the earthquake is surrounded by water from another threat. According to international aid officials, there are 235 tent camps in the Leogane area. Fifteen are flooded, and several of those are still unreachable. But aid workers have been talking to residents there by phone and say all of them are safe. While a few areas were hard hit by the storm, most of Haiti fared well. A UN spokesperson said the country was incredibly lucky. Port -au-Prince, the capital, had heavy rains but only minimal flooding. In a tent camp, though, a mudslide buried one of the homes.

    MARK POTTER reporting: They said when the mud fell down, it destroyed the house that was underneath there, a shelter house that was made. Now all the mud just covered everything. But no one died, but just all the material, their bed and everything is left inside.

    Unidentified Woman:

    Unidentified Man:

    Mr. JEAN PIERRE (Translator): Aid workers are now assessing the recovery needs, and the US is offering supplies and helicopter support. And with the skies clear again, Haitian streets are returning to life as the people here weather yet another storm. Now, still to be determined is whether the heavy rains may have worsened the cholera epidemic here by spreading the contaminated water that has already killed more than 400 Haitians and put thousands in the hospital. Lester :

    POTTER: Mark Potter tonight, thanks.


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