GONAIVES, Haiti — Peering through the windows of a U.N. relief helicopter as it descended over the flood-ravaged city, stunned visitors got their first inkling of the scope of the disaster.
Throughout Gonaives, Haiti's third-largest city, thousands of people had climbed to their rooftops and were living there with the few mattresses, blankets and pieces of furniture they could salvage.
Their homes below were filled with mud, the streets still covered by water, days after then-Tropical Sorm Jeanne brought torrential rains and devastating flash floods.
Dark-colored watermarks staining many of the homes, walls and businesses proved that in some areas the water had been eight to 10 feet deep.
Marc Brizard, whose ice factory was destroyed and his home damaged, said he saved his life by clinging to a high fence until he could be rescued.
As the rains pounded the nearby mountains, the floodwaters snaked downward through the streets of Gonaives, and then rose steadily — and silently. So quietly that all Brizard could hear were the screams of his terrified neighbors seeking help.Video: The storm’s toll in Haiti
"No noise, nothing, just smooth, shhhhhhh, and people cry, cry, cry," he said.
Bodies piled up
At the Gonaives hospital — recently renovated, but badly damaged by the flood — bodies of the victims were stacked up outside a makeshift morgue in the searing sun. Officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross finally decided they had no choice but to bury them in mass graves.
"When we arrived here Monday, the morgue behind us was full of bodies. When I say full, I say more than a hundred bodies, and they were just piled up," said Daniel Rubens, a Red Cross supervisor whose eyes mirrored the strain of working so long among the dead.
Throughout the town, the stench of death hung heavy in the air, not just because of the human remains, but also the carcasses of livestock littering the streets and the open sewer trenches. Residents held rags over their noses or stuck pieces of lime in their nostrils.
On a drive along one of Gonaives' main streets, rescue workers could be seen lifting a human body from the mud and the debris in front of a house. Another corpse lay uncovered on the sidewalk, left there by neighbors who found it after the waters began to recede.
A devastated city
In the hardest-hit part of Gonaives, thousands of people slogged through filthy brown water on foot, as cars, trucks and small buses crammed with passengers inched along on the same flooded streets.
Some roads were blocked by overturned vehicles. The teeming traffic often came to a standstill while construction crews tried to clear the debris. Horns blared and loud arguments broke out constantly, as tempers flared.
Many of the pedestrians were injured after falling in potholes and crevices beneath the water, putting them at risk for serious infection, even gangrene. Others washed their clothes and took baths in the water as it flowed through the streets.
Some were so desperate, they even used the runoff for cooking and drinking. With the water contaminated by sewage, health officials worried about a disease outbreak.
"We believe there is a definite possibility of epidemic in the near future," said Micaela Amede, president of the Haitian Red Cross. "The water is stagnant, and the sewers are broken."
Along many of the roads, homes are destroyed. The powerful floodwaters tore down cement walls, punched in doors, upended trees and left cars, trucks — even tractor-trailers — battered, upside down and filled with mud.
At a small nursery school, workers tried to shovel mud out of the classrooms. The children’s desks had all washed down the streets.
Relief efforts mobbed
In Rabateau, one of Gonaives' poorest and toughest neighborhoods, hundreds of desperate Haitian men, women and children gathered for hours in the hot sun, pushing and shouting, as they clutched empty flour sacks and plastic buckets.
They had come to a United Nations food distribution center set up at the Ecole Saint Francois D'Assise, a local church compound. Some of the Haitians said they were very thirsty, and hadn't eaten in days.
Armed U.N. peacekeepers from Argentina tried to control the unruly crowd, positioning military troop trucks in front of the church gate to prevent the neighborhood residents from tearing it down.
Beleaguered food distribution workers complained they were getting no help at all from the Haitian government.
"We have been asking for reinforcements of police. They left yesterday, and there is no one here to support us," said Eric Mouillefarine, a U.N. coordinator.
When a convoy of trucks carrying rice, lentils beans and cooking oil finally arrived at the feeding center, the Haitians surged forward, trying to squeeze past the soldiers guarding the gate.
The first allowed inside the compound to receive aid supplies were pregnant and elderly women. They crammed into the church, with mud and water still on the floor, jostling to grab beans from large bags, and to pour oil into jars or buckets.
At some feeding sites, troops had to confront violent gang members stealing food from residents, or looting aid convoy trucks before they arrived at their destinations. What stolen relief supplies they didn't eat, the gangs would then sell.
One unescorted truck, driven by a private organization, was attacked on the road to Gonaives. A U.N. spokesman said no one was hurt, but all the food aboard was carted away by the mob.
In the roughest neighborhoods, relief workers even had to negotiate with gang leaders over access to the areas most in need of help.Video: Hell on earth in Haiti
International aid flown in
While most of the relief effort centered on Gonaives, many worried about the more remote sectors of northwest Haiti also devastated by the storm.
"The areas that are most affected at the moment, where the people are the most needy, it's impossible to find a dry area with a safe perimeter to keep control of the crowd," said Cecily Bryant, of CARE.
At the international airport in Port au Prince, the Haitian capital, daily cargo flights brought relief supplies from around the world, including food, tents, plastic sheets, medical supplies and hygiene kits.
With some roads flooded or washed out, and no large runways available in the remote areas, the aid materials had to either be flown by helicopter or carted in large four-wheel-drive vehicles to the hard-hit region.
"People are nevous, people are upset. We want to supply them with water, one of the basic needs, and also for those who are injured, we want to supply them with a hospital," said Marko Kokic, a spokesman for the International Red Cross.
Plans were underway to build a field hospital and to repair the damaged Gonaives hospital, where some of the patients drowned during the worst of the flooding.
The Red Cross also was building a water purification unit, to help address concerns over contamination and disease.
Vulnerable to future disasters
Looming over the coastal city of Gonaives are a range of rugged and nearly white-colored mountains. There are virtually no trees or topsoil left there to soak up rainwater and prevent it from racing downhill toward Gonaives and other villages.
Over the decades, the Haitian peasants deforested the mountains — even tore out and burned the roots — to make charcoal for cooking.
With its natural defenses destroyed, the widespread fear is that Haiti, with its crushing poverty — the worst in the western hemisphere — could face more flooding catastrophes and large-scale death tolls.
Just a few months ago, another torrential rainfall brought similar flash flooding to the eastern region of the country, killing thousands.
In Gonaives, as relief workers and soldiers struggled with the overwhelming misery and abysmal conditions there, they knew it could easily happen again with the next darkening sky.
Mark Potter is an NBC News Correspondent based in Miami.