GONAÏVES, Haiti — Their cupboards were virtually bare before the winds started whipping, the skies opened up and this seaside city filled like a caldron with thick, brown, smelly muck.
But the enduring spirit of the people of Gonaïves is being tested by a string of recent tropical storms and hurricaneswhose names Haitians spit out like curses: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.
After four fierce storms in less than a month, the little that many people had has turned to nothing at all. Their humble homes are under water, forcing them onto the roofs. Schools are canceled. Hunger is now intense. Difficult lives have become untenable ones and, if that was not enough, hurricane season has only just reached the traditional halfway mark.
One can see the misery in the eyes of Edith Pierre, who takes care of six children on her roof in the center of Gonaïves, a city of about 300,000 in Haiti’s north. She has strung a sheet up to shield them, somewhat, from the piercing sun. The few scraps of clothing she could salvage sit in heaps off to a side. “Now I have nothing,” she said before pausing a minute, staring down from the roof at the river of floodwater and then saying again in an even more forlorn way: “Nothing.”
At the home of Daniel Dupiton, who leads the local Red Cross, displaced relatives, friends and complete strangers have moved in, more than 100 in all, taking up every inch of floor space as well as the surrounding yard. “There are official shelters, and then there are unofficial ones, like my house,” he said.
More misery in Haiti is an almost unfathomable thing. Already the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere, it has become even more destitute. Haitians were struggling to feed themselves before the hurricanes battered their agricultural lands, killed their livestock and washed away their tiny stores of rice. Now, the country will be even more dependent on imports, and the high food prices across the globe will only increase the sting.
“Life was very, very difficult even before this,” said Raphael Chuinard, who is organizing the distribution of emergency aid in Gonaïves for the United Nations World Food Program. “The malnutrition rate was too high. People were resigned to suffer.”
And now that suffering has been turned up a notch. The hurricanes have struck all 10 of Haiti’s regions, and by knocking out bridges and washing away roads they have created isolated pockets of misery across the countryside. Relief workers and Haitian authorities have reported more than 300 deaths, most from Hanna, and they are just beginning to reach all the trouble spots.
In Gonaïves, still largely cut off from the rest of Haiti, sunny skies have helped bring the water levels down in recent days, but still residents move through the streets with their ankles, their knees and sometimes even their hips submerged in effluent. The hospital is covered with floodwater. So are thousands of homes.
At the main cathedral, the water rushed in the front door, toppling pews and leaving the place stained with mud and smelling of sewage. Upstairs, dozens of people have taken refuge, huddled together on the concrete floor. When a visitor arrived, they rubbed their bellies and pleaded for nourishment.
Getting food to the hungry is no easy task, dependent on planes, ships and helicopters — including a nearby United States Navy vessel — since trucks are getting stuck in the mud. Once food reaches a place like Gonaïves, the crush of desperate people turns handouts into melees. As a solution, food trucks, protected by heavily armed Argentine soldiers serving with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country, have begun setting out before dawn to distribute high-energy biscuits while most of the city still sleeps.
Haitian politicians, known more for their infighting than for comforting the country’s poor, were busy squabbling when the storms were striking. The legislature voted out President René Préval’s last prime minister in April, after food riots broke out, and then rejected two subsequent nominees. That left the government, ineffectual at the best of times, adrift.
Taking over as prime minister in the midst of the recovery effort is Michèle Pierre-Louis, who tried to reach Gonaïves by motorcade in recent days but could not get through. She flew over the disaster zone on Tuesday, prompting grumbling on the ground in Gonaïves that she did not land.
The Navy vessel is now shuttling food and United Nations personnel between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves. As for the extent of the damage, Mr. Préval told The Miami Herald, “This is Katrina in the entire country, but without the means that Louisiana had.”
Gonaïves, the worst of the worst on the scale of the death and destruction, has always been especially vulnerable when hurricanes strike. A northern port city, it is located in a flood plain and fills up fast when rivers break their banks and rain rushes down mountains long ago stripped of trees. But that same geography gives the place agricultural potential, and much of the rice grown in the country is from the area around here.
It was just four years ago that Hurricane Jeanne hit Gonaïves, killing about 3,000 people and leveling much of the city. The ensuing years have been spent rebuilding.
This time, though, there is talk about whether it makes sense to try to recreate the same old place again. Authorities are talking about shifting some of the population away from the lowest-lying areas.
There is discussion of strengthening building codes so that structures are not so easily leveled in the next storm — and everyone knows there will be one. The local emergency operations center was flooded, and Yolène Surena, its coordinator, vowed that the new one would move to higher ground. “We should have done it before,” she acknowledged with a shake of her head.
In Port-au-Prince, Patrick Élie, a presidential adviser who is preparing a report on whether Haiti ought to reform its army, said the string of storms made it clearer than ever to him that the country’s biggest enemies were not other armies.
“We need a civil defense system,” he said. “These storms have pointed out the weakness of the Haitian state. Why are we surprised every time a storm hits when we know another one will come?”