GONAIVES, Haiti — Food and freshwater ran dangerously low for thousands in the flood-stricken Haitian city of Gonaives and surrounding villages on Wednesday, as governments and aid groups struggled to get aid to people stranded at shelters.
Shipments of food and pledges of more poured in from around the world, but the distribution of the emergency supplies was hampered by the impoverished country's chronic insecurity and the poor and often nonexistent network of roads and other infrastructure.
"The availability of food is not an issue," said Myrta Kaulard, a representative of the United Nations' World Food Program. "Access, yes, is an issue."
U.N. peacekeepers have been handing out water and high-protein biscuits throughout Gonaives, which is still largely underwater after successive hits from one tropical storm and three hurricanes. But they have had to switch to distributing only at night to avoid causing a riot among desperate citizens.
The Navy's USS Kearsarge arrived off the coast Sunday evening with amphibious boats and helicopters capable of resolving some of the logistical problems. But Hurricane Ike delayed the vessel's arrival at the capital, Port-au-Prince, until late the next day, and its helicopters spent two days trying to find a safe spot to land in Gonaives.
Amphibious boats and helicopters from the Kearsarge have since delivered more than 85 metric tons of rice, beans and flour to the city. But the rice cannot be sent to shelters until the U.N. World Food Program sends in culinary kits to cook it, said Vicky Delore Ndjeuga, a U.N. spokeswoman for the mission in Gonaives.
The slow pace of the aid was evident in Gonaives. At least 331 people have been killed in several storms, and the toll could rise. Nine people have already died in shelters with few supplies or little organization. Floodwaters from Hurricane Ike receded to ankle-level in many parts of the city, allowing more hungry and injured people to make their way to a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders.
There, a team of doctors from around Latin America scrambled to treat about 200 people with infections on their feet and legs from more than a week of slogging through flooded streets.
Mothers carried listless children with protruding stomachs, their hair bleached and receding from malnutrition.
"People are suffering from a lack of water and food," said Efrain Fajardo, an orthopedic surgeon pouring antiseptic over a bone protruding from a man's big toe. Fajardo said the hospital was running out of bandages, cotton swabs and fuel for generators.
The crisis in Gonaives developed through an unlucky sequence of events, from a last-minute change in Tropical Storm Hanna's course to the onslaught of Hurricane Ike just as relief supplies started to get through.
Hanna was on track to sideswipe the Bahamas when it took a dip in its course on Aug. 31. Relief efforts in Haiti had been concentrated on the southern coast, where Hurricane Gustav had just hit.
"There was no, absolutely no forewarning that a few hours later we were going to start being swamped by Hurricane Hanna, which changed the landscape completely," said Julie Leonard, a regional adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development.