The U.N. World Food Program's director flew to a Haitian city still encased in mud Friday to draw global attention to the ongoing disaster that has enormously complicated the country's struggle to feed itself.
The WFP said it has asked for $54 million to help Haiti recover from four killer storms but so far has received only $1 million. Beginning a two-day survey of the disaster area, Executive Director Josette Sheeran said "concerted global action" will be needed in a country where local officials say famine looms.
Haitian President Rene Preval also pleaded for help, asking for long-term assistance Friday in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
Devastation awaited Sheeran in this coastal city, largely cut off from the rest of Haiti because of flooded roads and wrecked bridges. Gray mud is still piled waist-high in homes, coating prized television sets, books and cooking pots. Tens of thousands still live in shelters and roam muddy streets looking for food.
At least 194 people were killed by the tropical storms in less than a month this summer in Gonaives and the surrounding region, the largest share of a nationwide death toll of 425.
Topsoil gone, mosquitoes flourish
Some of the muck is topsoil — precious in this deforested country — flushed from the mountains above when a river broke its banks, churned through the countryside and sliced through town before emptying into the sea.
Clouds of mosquitoes now breed in Gonaives' wet ground, raising fears that disease will spread. Children play in the muck. In a hospital, brown mud immobilizes an empty wheelchair.
Some families bail the mud from their houses, soldiering on in the stench. Mothers use muddy rags to wipe off kitchen utensils. Most residents have nowhere else to go.
"I've been cleaning out my dirt house," said Yonel Charles, who lost all his possessions in the floods. "I have to stay here."
The floods from Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike destroyed an estimated 60 percent of Haiti's food harvest.
"The system of agriculture has been destroyed," Agriculture Minister Joanas Gue told The Associated Press earlier this month.
The WFP said it has delivered more than 2,200 metric tons of food during this emergency, enough to feed almost 500,000 people.
"Hunger is no stranger to Haitians who have been struck by more than their fair share of crises," Sheeran said. "Now is the time for concerted global action to get food to the hungry, and to support President Preval's goal of longer-term solutions to help the country, and its people, feed themselves."
President fears world will forget
Speaking in New York, Preval thanked the world for its help, but said emergency aid alone won't solve Haiti's plight and that long-term solutions are needed.
"Once this first wave of humanitarian compassion is exhausted, we will be left once again, truly alone, to face new catastrophes and see again, like a ritual, the start of the same exercises of mobilization," Preval said.
Preval said he wants trade liberalization "based on clear rules" that would allow Haitian farmers to compete, and a reconstruction project that empowers Haitians to take care of themselves.
More than 800,000 people in the country of 9 million have been affected by the storms, including more than 300,000 children. Gonaives is on Haiti's central floodplain, but towns on the southern peninsula also remain cut off and desperate for drinking water, and the country's northwest is flooded. Bridges and roads lay destroyed all across the country.
The U.N. said it has only received 3.4 percent of its $108 million appeal for relief after the storms. An additional $17 million has been given in bilateral aid.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has pledged $29 million in humanitarian assistance so far.
"The scope of this is frankly unimaginable in many countries," U.S. Ambassador Janet Sanderson said last week. "A lot of the progress of the last couple of years has been swept away by these waters."