Tomas Regains Hurricane Strength; Soaks Haiti Refugee Camps

November 5, 2010

Tropical Storm Tomas re-strengthened to a hurricane Friday as it headed between Cuba and Haiti, drenching with overnight rain crowded tent and tarpaulin camps housing vulnerable Haitian earthquake survivors.

Although some camp dwellers in Haiti’s capital, homeless from the Jan. 12 quake, were able to evacuate to more secure shelter with family or friends, or in schools and public buildings, hundreds of thousands spent the night under dripping plastic and canvas in the mud-choked encampments.

“It rained, but it was a normal night and I slept,” said ice cream seller Zaporte N’Zanou, who passed the night in a tent in the big Champs de Mars quake survivors’ camp in front of the wrecked presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.

With the approach of Tomas from the south, the United Nations and relief agencies have gone on maximum alert to prepare for the risk of a further humanitarian emergency in Haiti, which is already reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic and from the widespread destruction of the earthquake.

At 8 a.m., Tomas was moving northeastward to the west of Haiti, about 160 miles from Port-au-Prince, packing top sustained winds of 85 miles per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

It had earlier re-intensified over the Caribbean sea into a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, heading on a track that would take it near or over eastern Cuba, the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas.

On Thursday, hours before the approach of the cyclone, Haitian President Rene Preval went on national radio to urge citizens to take precautions and follow evacuation recommendations in the face of the risk of gusting winds, surging waves and torrential rains. “Protect your lives,” Preval told Haitians.

The Miami-based hurricane center said the biggest threat from Tomas would be heavy rainfall that could produce flash flooding and life-threatening mudslides in Haiti, where massive deforestation — caused largely by impoverished peasants cutting firewood for decades — has left hills and mountains bare and eroded.

The Jan. 12 earthquake killed more than a quarter of a million people in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. About 1.3 million survivors live in makeshift tent camps crammed into open spaces in the wrecked capital.

With the storm threat and the spreading cholera epidemic, Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections. Electoral officials have not moved to postpone the vote.

Camp dwellers had hunkered down for a miserable night as rain fell steadily. Every camp has a committee charged with keeping order and several committee leaders said they were trying to alleviate conditions for the most vulnerable.

“We are putting old people and young families in the Red Cross shelter,” said Yves-Marie Sopin at a camp for around 5,000 people on the grounds of the prime minister’s residence.

“We haven’t taken precautions. We are in God’s hands,” said Ave Lise Mesila, in her white tarpaulin tent.

The United Nations said the storm will almost certainly exacerbate a cholera epidemic that has killed 442 people and sickened more than 6,700 so far, according to government figures.

“The big fear is for people on exposed mountains. These people are at high risk of landslides and flash flooding,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

Tomas swept across the Caribbean’s eastern islands as a hurricane during the weekend, killing at least five people in St. Lucia. Several more people were missing.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands and parts of the Bahamas and Cuba.

At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba, military officials warned the 174 foreign captives detained there that a storm was on the way and laid in supplies of water and packaged meals.

“Detainees are secure in sound structures to ensure their safety and well being,” said Navy Commander Tamsen Reese, a spokeswoman for the detention operation.

Haitian schools were closed Thursday and Friday. Schools were also closed in parts of Jamaica, where Tropical Storm Nicole killed 15 people more than a month ago.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Horace Helps in Kingston and Kevin Gray and Jane Sutton in Miami; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Vicki Allen)

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