PORT-AU-PRINCE, September 4 – Helicopters hovered over the flooded Haitian city of Gonaives on Wednesday plucking survivors from rooftops as authorities reported that Tropical Storm Hanna left 61 people dead.
Hanna is the third major storm to pound the area in as many weeks, and comes as two more storm systems churned in the Atlantic, and with Hanna threatening to strengthen to hurricane status.
The Gonaives flooding raised memories of the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004, when about 3,000 people were killed, mostly in the northern city.
"Something must be done quickly," said Germain Michelet, a priest who took refuge from the flooding on the second floor of the archbishop’s office in Gonaives.
"I don’t know how much longer we will remain alive," he told AFP. "If we are forced to go through another night under these conditions, there will not be many survivors."
The UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) carried out numerous helicopter rescue missions in Gonaives, saving many lives.
"We have managed to recover two dozen people who were trapped on rooftops," MINUSTAH spokeswoman Sophie Boutaud de la Combe told AFP, adding that nine wounded were flown to the capital for treatment.
The Gonaives hospital was also flooded, a doctor told local radio. "The patients are grouped in one room," the unnamed doctor said. He added: "The situation is critical."
Haiti is especially prone to flooding and landslides due to widespread deforestation on its section of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic.
Tens of thousands of people in both countries were forced to take refuge due to the driving rain and flooding, though there were no casualties reported in the Dominican Republic.
Hanna struck Haiti one week after it was hit by Hurricane Gustav, which killed 77 people. Two weeks ago, Tropical Storm Fay sparked flooding in Haiti that left about 40 people dead.
As Hanna churned, the government of the Bahamas issued a hurricane warning, while the US embassy in Nassau announced it would be closed Thursday and Friday.
"Gradual strengthening is expected over the next couple of days and Hanna could become a hurricane tomorrow (Thursday)," the US National Hurricane Centre said in its latest advisory.
On its forecast track, Hanna’s centre "should be moving through or just east of the central and north-western Bahamas over the next 24 to 36 hours," it said.
As the northwest Bahamas prepared for Hanna, hurricane shelters opened on Grand Bahama Island.
"We want to advise the public to take all of the necessary precautions so that they can be safe," said Bahamas Minister of Housing Kenneth Russell. "We have assessed all of the designated shelters and will continue to monitor the storm."
Officials at Grand Bahama hospitals said they were confident they could handle any emergency.
"Our staff has been advised and adequately prepared for coverage of our facilities that will be operational during the storm," said Sharon Williams, hospital administrator.
Late Wednesday, Hanna’s centre was about 320 kilometres (200 miles) east-southeast of San Salvador in the Bahamas, and moving north at near 22 kilometres (14 miles) an hour, the US National Hurricane Centre reported.
The storm packed maximum sustained winds of near 105 kilometres (65 miles) per hour, with higher gusts.
The centre’s extended forecast showed Hanna heading towards the Atlantic coast of north Florida, then turning north and making landfall Sunday around North Carolina, on the US central Atlantic coastline.
Two other storms were churning in the Atlantic.
Ike strengthened to a Category Three hurricane just three hours after it moved from being a tropical storm to gaining hurricane status.
And Tropical Storm Josephine, in the eastern Atlantic 605 kilometres (375 miles) west of the southernmost Cape Verde islands, was expected to weaken as it moved west-northwest Thursday.