Agency workers assess damage after Isaac passes

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NAPLES, Fla. - Catholic agencies were working Aug. 27 to assess damage in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaac's pass over the Caribbean, where at least 24 people died and tens of thousands were evacuated.

The storm left widespread flooding and wind damage in Cuba and Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, before turning north toward the U.S. Gulf Coast, where it was expected to make landfall Aug. 28.

The islands largely escaped a direct hit, however, as the storm's center passed south of Hispaniola before scraping the northwest coast of Cuba.

"The rains were heavy at times and the winds were strong, but it didn't have the force of a hurricane," said Lorenzo Garcia-Troncoso, director of Caritas Dominican Republic.

On Aug. 27, officials in Haiti upped the death toll there to 19, reflecting the vulnerability of a country still recovering from the 2010 earthquake. Some 421,000 Haitians still live in tents and tarp-covered shacks.

"For thousands of families, Isaac is still a horrible ordeal. I saw busloads of children without parents still arriving at shelters and heard from a woman who lost her child as they ran, terrified, from their flooded home in the middle of the night," said Stephania Musset, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, a humanitarian group working in the country.

Haiti's Civil Protection Office reported six more people were missing and that 335 homes had been destroyed. Officials evacuated roughly 15,000 people, the office said.

Catholic agencies were collecting information from various dioceses around the country. Damage appeared to be heaviest in the Southeast department.

Church officials planned to meet Aug. 27 to determine how to respond, a spokesman for Caritas Haiti said by telephone. Groups had not launched a formal appeal for emergency assistance, but aid groups feared the storm could leave conditions ripe for the spread of cholera, a disease that has killed more than 7,500 in the past two years.

Cholera posed the most pressing concern for staff members of the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services; they fanned across southern portions of the country to assess the condition of the network of cholera treatment centers the agency supports.

A CRS spokeswoman said that while damage appeared to be less severe than expected, two cholera treatment centers in the capital of Port-au-Prince were hit. The centers must be able to handle the expected influx of victims contracting the water-borne disease so that early treatment will prevent deaths and limit the spread of the illness.

CRS staff reported that the damage and flooding appeared to be most severe in the Southeast department, with the numerous homes in the communities of Bainet, Jacmel and Kay Jacmel being destroyed.

Flooding was reported in some neighborhoods of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The CRS spokeswoman said some temporary shelters the agency funded after the January 2010 earthquake were damaged by Isaac's 60-mph winds.

In neighboring Dominican Republic, two people died after being swept away by a river raging with rainfall from the storm. Emergency officials in that country said at least three other died and nearly 13,000 people had fled their homes.

Cuban officials reported some 25,000 evacuees and minor damage to infrastructure, according to news sources.

Garcia said Caritas and several Catholic dioceses were working with Dominican farmers who had lost banana and plantain crops.

"Compared to what we were expecting initially, the damage was far more minor," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970