Far from capital, Haiti quake tatters coastal city

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JACMEL, Haiti (AP) — This coastal city normally would be gearing up for its raucous Carnival festival, with celebrants in brightly decorated masks dancing in the streets and the air filled with joyous song.

Instead, the streets are plugged with rubble, the air heavy with the stench of the dead. And the only melody is a mournful tune strummed by Gabriel Mollet.

The unemployed Mollet played guitar amid the ruins on a downtown street Sunday, huddled with a few friends as they pondered their fate and the future of this once graceful city that hoped to greet tourists for the pre-Lenten season.

Mollet, 31, said the earthquake left little behind.

“Everything was taken from me except my life,” he said.

All around him were crumbled houses. Nearby, rescue workers from Colombia dug through a jumble of concrete, steel poles and splintered wood, searching for survivors. Though Jacmel wasn’t hit as hard as parts of the capital 20 miles away, the situation here is dire.

The main road to Port-au-Prince, normally a three-hour drive to the northeast on a twisting road, is blocked by debris, meaning food can only be brought in by air or atop motorcycles able to wind their way through. Rescue crews were unable to bring in the heavy machinery they need to search for victims amid the rubble.

“We have yet to find anyone alive,” said Jenny Ramirez, a Colombian firefighter. “All we can do is try to help people we can see because we don’t have the machinery to do more.”

The quake left the town’s hospital seriously damaged, forcing a team of a few doctors and nurses to rush between patients at a makeshift clinic. About 100 people there were sprawled on the ground under tents.

“We’ve got no supplies. We need help,” Dr. Christelle Dessources said.

It was difficult to say how many in this town of some 40,000 people were killed by the quake. Danny Pye, director of the children’s home Joy in Hope, said initial estimates were about 3,000 dead.

Some bodies have been put in the morgue, some have been buried; others remain in the streets.

About three-quarters of the homes in Jacmel’s downtown were damaged. The neighborhood was one of the charms that drew foreigners to the old port town, once home to wealthy coffee merchants. Mansions that belonged to the merchants, and other buildings with French-inspired architecture, have been turned into shops for artisans, whose colorful crafts and paintings were popular with tourists.

The turquoise waters of Jacmel’s bay and its serene reputation had made the town a tranquil contrast to the bustling and gritty Port-au-Prince. It boasted a large expatriate community — a mix of Europeans, mostly French, and some Americans — and was seen as a spot of hope amid Haiti’s perpetual challenges.

The earthquake likely will set back tourism several years. Norma di Pietro, a 50-year-old Italian traveler, was eager to escape.

“I’ve told myself that if I can leave this country, I’m never coming back. Never,” she said.

Di Pietro was inside a hotel when the quake struck. She ran out when the rumbling started, and has been sleeping outside ever since. She’s trying to hire a plane to fly her to the neighboring Dominican Republic.

“I just want to get out of here,” she said.

Thousands of people left homeless by the quake initially took to sleeping on Jacmel’s airfield but only about 50 remained Sunday. The others have returned to what’s left of their houses or found have refuge with the handful of missionaries in the area.

Along the coastline, several bungalows normally filled with tourists were mangled. Dogs and pigs picked over garbage strewn through the rubble. Men asked visitors for money or food.

Despite the desperation, locals said they hadn’t witnessed any looting or violence. Every so often, a coastal breeze swept away the odor of the bodies, leaving the scent of salt in its place.

“Jacmel is still Jacmel,” said Fenel Bruno, a Haitian missionary. “We just need to clean it up.”