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Haiti Wracked By A Storm Of Misery

Nick Kocmich looked out of the helicopter window Monday afternoon to a sea of desperate faces and outstretched arms pleading for anything the tiny aircraft might be carrying to the twice-slammed city of Gonaives on Haiti's western shore.

The pilot managed to find a patch of dry land in a church compound and set down. Fifty people immediately crowded around the machine while another 150 stood a short distance away, hoping there would be enough supplies aboard the tiny aircraft to reach them.

The scene remained orderly, despite the urgent need by all who surrounded the helicopter. Kocmich, director of the Diocese of Norwich Mission House in Port au Prince, and volunteers from Cross International quickly emptied the one ton of packaged food they carried to the starving city.

Kocmich estimated there would be only enough military rations and vitamin-fortified rice with dried vegetables to feed 1,000 people for one day.

”It's just so difficult,” he said of the enormous relief effort needed throughout Haiti after four tropical storms raked the country in the past month. “Where do you start? There's hundreds of thousands of people in misery.”

Kocmich, of Omaha, Neb., has been in Haiti for 3 years, at first volunteering for an orphanage before joining the Norwich diocese's Haitian Ministries in June of 2007. He witnessed the famine and political turmoil earlier this summer, but the string of storms over the past month has left him searching for words to describe the situation.

”The flooding, the devastation and the misery - nothing can compare to this,” he said. “Yesterday I went to a village called Caberat (in the north), where 22 people were killed by Hurricane Ike. People said there were 20 houses in one spot the day before, and there's none there today. People are muddy and dirty and hungry. From the northeast to the southwest, no area of the country hasn't been hit by these storms.”

Haitian Ministries works with numerous local villages in the mountains and valleys. There's a priest Kocmich works with closely in one mountain village. No one has heard from that village - and others - since the storms.

”It's very scary,” Kocmich said.

Haiti, which occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, is known to be at the center of a hurricane belt through the Caribbean, but this summer that belt has become a hurricane highway.

Tropical Storm Fay made a westward track through the center of Haiti on Aug. 16. Hurricane Gustav slammed into the southern shore on Aug. 26. Tropical Storm Hanna dumped torrential rain on the northern part of the country Sept. 3, and as relief workers were readying to respond, Hurricane Ike sat off the northern shores, adding to the torrents of flooding and mudslides Saturday night and Sunday morning that prevented emergency workers from reaching the scene.

News reports estimate that more than 300 people have been killed by the combined storms, with Gonaives - the fourth largest city - the hardest hit. A wall of water and mud crashed into the first floor of a hospital, killing everyone on that floor. Kocmich said most of the city was under water. From the helicopter on Monday, he saw people still walking knee deep in water.

After Hanna, there was only one road for relief workers to get into Gonaives. Ike took that one out.

The Haitian Ministries works with 13 parishes in villages throughout Haiti. As of Monday afternoon, they have been able to contact only two of those parishes, said Emily Smack, executive director of the Haitian Ministries office in Uncasville. Right now, Kocmich is the only representative from the diocese in Haiti.

Les Palmes, a parish south of Port au Prince, has lost 90 percent of its livestock, Smack said. Many homes slid away in the mud and all their gardens have been wiped out. Saintaard parish in Arcahaie village, a very low-lying area on the north coast, also has been hit hard, Smack said.

”Many, many, many houses are under water,” she said. “Many people haven't eaten in four days. Fresh water is nonexistent.”

The Haitian Ministries has lost contact with a third parish, St. Genevieve, which was hard-hit in flooding last year.

Separate from the diocese, the Haitian Health Foundation, based in Norwich, operates a large medical clinic in Jeremie, located on the western tip of the peninsula that juts into the ocean in southern Haiti.

”I got out just ahead of Ike,” said foundation President Dr. Jeremiah Lowney of Norwich. “I got out Saturday morning.”

Lowney had been in Jeremie, where the clinic became an emergency shelter for some 400 people after storms Hanna and Fay.

”We had been distributing food anyway even before the storms, because of the terrible famine,” Lowney said. “It's the usual. The people who get hurt are the ones who don't have anything.”

The devastation in Haiti and Connecticut's local ties there have sparked vigorous efforts to raise money to help relieve the suffering. Lowney said he is pleased that donations for Haiti have remained strong, despite the poor U. S. economy.

The Haitian Ministries also is collecting money to help provide relief aid. In addition, several individual Catholic parishes in Connecticut that have “twin parish” relationships with parishes in Haiti are running their own fund drives.

In Rocky Hill, St. Elizabeth Seton Church has a twin parish relationship with Saintaard parish in Haiti. Even before the storms, the Rocky Hill church had planned to hold “Hoof it for Haiti,” a 5K road race and walkathon for Sept. 27 to raise money for Saintaard.

”We expect a lot of families to come out,” said event co-chairwoman Barbara Wysocki. “Children are already collecting money through can drives. Collecting is always ongoing. The community has made a commitment to this parish.”
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