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'Buried' Haitian City Braces For New Storm Season

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'Buried' Haitian City Braces For New Storm Season

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'Buried' Haitian City Braces For New Storm Season

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's official: Today, Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, named Bill Clinton as the U.N. envoy to Haiti. The former president is popular in Haiti, and the U.N. hopes the high-profile assignment will draw attention and investment. Haiti has suffered decades of economic and environmental devastation, and the country has yet to recover from massive floods and mudslides caused by hurricanes last fall.

NPR's Corey Flintoff visited one of the hardest-hit towns, Gonaives. People there are still digging themselves out.

COREY FLINTOFF: Just six months ago, amid torrents of rain, a mountainside melted and engulfed this town. Waves of mud swept into the streets and canals of Gonaives, burying people, animals and cars, and filling houses to the rafters. Even after the water receded, the mud remained, entombing whole neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of beeping, truck engine)

FLINTOFF: Slowly, by the shovelful, the soil from that mountain is being dug from Gonaives and piled here, on the outskirts of the city. United Nations officials estimate that about 1.8 million metric tons of dirt have already been moved, with hundreds of thousands of tons yet to go.

(Soundbite of truck engine)

FLINTOFF: Jean-Pierre Mambounou drives through streets that have only just been excavated. He's the local director for the World Food Program, which still feeds about 400,000 people in this region every month.

Mr. JEAN-PIERRE MAMBOUNOU (Local Director, World Food Program, Gonaives): This area was completely under water and mud.

FLINTOFF: Mambounou is a genial but harried man who's worked 14 years for the WFP, responding to disasters and wars in places such as Rwanda and his native Democratic Republic of Congo. He arrived here just after the disasters that left much of this city encased in mud.

Mr. MAMBOUNOU: Now it's dry. You can't call it anymore mud. But this is a project with - we are visiting now. Our aim is not only to clean up the streets, but also houses.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

FLINTOFF: In this neighborhood, Asifa, dirt from cleaned-out houses still fills many streets, leaving only a narrow pathway between the piles that tower over people's heads. It's like a busy archeological site, as if the residents of Pompeii had come back to life to excavate their own city.

Mambounou works here with a smaller organization that encourages people to return to their buried houses and dig them out.

Mr. MAMBOUNOU: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The work is coordinated by Jupere Fleur.

Mr. JUPERE FLEUR (Supervisor, House Excavations, Gonaives): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Fleur is a younger and gentler-seeming man than you'd judge from that voice. He's explaining how people are paid with food as they work to clean their houses - about 400 so far.

Fleur and Mambounou trudge through the debris.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

FLINTOFF: Some women taking a break from cleaning their house call out to Fleur: Hey, the rice is good, but you need to give us some beans, too.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Mr. FLEUR: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Fleur says this particular project is designed to help more than 12,000 people. So far, he says, it's reached about 8,000. In addition to the houses, the water and mud also wiped out the area's small businesses, like this little cyber cafe where local people came to send messages to relatives and make phone calls.

Mr. ANTON NOZIL (Former Manager of Cyber Cafe): (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Anton Nozil, who helped operate the cafe, says he's hoping there will be a way to start up again. In his words: You can see a small business like this is of use to people here. It didn't bring a lot of money, but it was worth something.

Back on the road, Jean-Pierre Mambounou gestures toward the source of all the mud: the mountains that surround the city.

Mr. MAMBOUNOU: The mountains around - the hills around Gonaives, you can see they're completely barren. Whenever it rains, rainwater and mud comes down to the city. That's a problem.

FLINTOFF: The mountains were stripped of their trees years ago by desperate people who needed charcoal for cooking fuel. Heavy rains then washed off the topsoil. May marks the start of Haiti's rainy season, and Mambounou says the city is only about 60 percent clean so far. He thinks Gonaives is likely to survive drenching rains better then it did last fall because key canals have been cleared to allow the water to flow through. But Gonaives doesn't have long to finish its cleanup. The hurricane season officially begins next month and for Haiti, it usually brings its fiercest storms by September.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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