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Amid wreckage, Caribbean cleanup continues
By Camille Feanny and Patricia Romik
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In a devastating six-week period, Hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne wreaked havoc across parts of the Atlantic Ocean and killed thousands living in the Caribbean.
With 14 named storms and six major hurricanes during the 2004 storm season, the successive blows shattered communities in the region with an intensity rarely seen before.
Experts called it one of the most destructive and deadly seasons in recent history.
Throughout the Caribbean, inhabitants were barely able to clean up from one storm before another blew ashore. Today, nations such as Grenada, Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic are still struggling to recover.
Tim Callaghan of USAID, the agency funding a large portion of relief efforts, said several countries were unprepared for the magnitude of the hurricane damage.
"It was a very difficult situation this hurricane season, especially in the countries of Haiti and Grenada, where the impacts were quite severe," Callaghan said.
The cost of the catastrophes has been exceedingly high. Damage estimates, now in the billions of dollars, continue to rise. Unlike in U.S. communities, most in the Caribbean do not have insurance. Even for those with the money to make repairs, there is a limited supply of building material.
As a result, throughout the Caribbean, some schools remain closed. The intense storms also knocked out most major utilities on some islands. Millions remained in the dark for months as electricity has been slow to return. In the hardest-hit areas, access to safe drinking water is still not available in places where sewers are still overflowing.
Anarchy left by the storm also led to looting and violence that hindered relief efforts. In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, tens of thousands of people remain homeless and hungry more than two months after Tropical Storm Jeanne devastated the nation. A daily fight for food has become routine for thousands of people who swarm relief workers struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand.
Assessing the toll
According to U.S. government reports, Hurricane Ivan killed 39 people in Grenada and either damaged or destroyed about 90 percent of the homes on the island. In Cuba, Hurricane Charley blew apart 70,000 homes, though a mandatory evacuation of 200,000 people before the storm likely spared many lives.
Other islands did not fare much better. The storms killed several people in Jamaica, Barbados, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, and left hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
Nowhere was rocked as powerfully as Haiti, which suffered devastating mudslides and substantial numbers of deaths in the northern city of Gonaives. Years of cutting down the forests for firewood left mountainsides devoid of roots to bind soil. Days of intense rains eventually destabilized the area and covered unsuspecting residents under a mountain of water and debris.
The government reports that thousands were killed, and over a quarter-million remain homeless -- a devastating blow to a country where about 80 percent of the population already lives in poverty.
Relief organizations like CARE International have spent decades working in the region. They were taken by surprise by the degree of damage from the storms. Some said it could still take many months -- or even years -- for certain nations to recover.
"The destruction [in Haiti] was really devastating. I've never seen such destruction before," says John Solomon, an adviser with CARE International's Emergency Preparedness and Response Team. "People are destitute, homeless, they've lost livestock, so that's going to have a big impact. It will take a long time for them to get back to their original lives."
Humanitarian help and funding continue to pour in from agencies like the Red Cross, USAID, and the United Nations, which have pledged millions to help with recovery efforts. Health and disaster relief assistance is also on hand as the Pan American Health Organization, World Vision and other groups work to purify water, distribute hygiene kits and ensure that medical care is available.
CARE said its top priority is to keep diseases from spreading through the area and complicating an already difficult situation.
"There are health agencies working there," Solomon said. "CARE is also delivering diesel so they can get the water treatment plants up and running."
There are some improvements on the horizon.
Experts on the ground say that several islands like Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Bahamas are on the road to recovery, and several others are not far behind.
Flood waters continue to receed, making it much easier for equipment and supplies to be delivered. Relief workers credit the significant international support and resilience of the residents for the swift cleanup of many areas.
Because tourism remains the top money-maker for most nations in the region -- it accounts for more than 60 percent of the Bahamas' GDP, for example --local officials are working overtime to rebuild their slice of paradise.