GONAIVES, Haiti – The staggering death toll from Tropical Storm Jeanne (search) shot upward to an estimated 1,500 people Saturday, with 900 Haitians still missing as a thunderstorm drenched the homeless who are living on rooftops and sidewalks.
U.N. peacekeepers said they were sending reinforcements to help keep order among desperate survivors who have been looting aid trucks and mobbing food distribution centers.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue estimated more than 1,500 dead, said Paul Magloire, an advisor. At least 900 more were missing. Some 300,000 are homeless, most in the northwestern city of Gonaives (search).
With gang members trying to steal food out of the hands of people at aid centers, 140 Uruguayan soldiers were on their way to reinforce about 600 U.N. peacekeepers already in this hard-hit city, said Toussaint Kongo-Doudou, a spokesman for the U.N. mission.
"Security is one of our major concerns," he said.
Officials said gangsters had forced their way into distribution centers and stolen food. Kongo-Doudou said troops had been able to chase them away without violence.
A U.N. (search) humanitarian relief coordinator, Eric Mouillesarine, said people were mobbing relief workers and "there's nothing we can do."
U.N. troops from Argentina fired smoke grenades Friday when about 500 men, women and children tried to break into a schoolyard where CARE International was handing out grain and water to an orderly line of women. The sunburned, unwashed flood victims returned in surges once the air cleared.
The director of the World Food Program's Haiti operation, Guy Gavreau, said Friday that aid groups had been able to get food to only about 25,000 people this week — one-tenth of Gonaives' population.
During the night, lightning bolts lit the sky above blacked-out Gonaives, thunderclaps exploded and sheets of rain lashed the thousands living on the street and on concrete roofs of flooded homes.
The rain cleared up Saturday morning, but floodwaters rose again in some mud-coated areas of the city that had dried out in the week since Jeanne struck.
Some people said they hoped to evacuate the city.
"If one person gets sick, we'll all be sick," said Ysemarie Saint-Louis, who spent the night on her roof with more than 30 relatives who crowded under a small tin shelter during the thunderstorm. When the rain let up, they went back to sleep on wet mattresses and blankets.
Saint-Louis said she and the others hoped to go elsewhere in Haiti, such as the capital, Port-au-Prince, but she wasn't sure where.
Genevieve Montaguere, a nun from Guadeloupe, said relief deliveries were being limited to women because gangsters had bullied their way in earlier to make sure that only their buddies got food.
The strongest gang, the Cannibal Army, began a rebellion here in February that quickly was joined by soldiers of Haiti's disbanded army and led to the February ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The rebels refuse to disarm, keeping the country unstable.
It was unclear which gangs were causing trouble, Kongo-Doudou said. "The city is just filled with gangs."
The thunderstorm hit as floodwaters finally were beginning to recede in Gonaives, where mud contaminated by overflowing sewage was forming a crust. People tried to fight the stench by holding limes or kerchiefs to their noses.
Kongo-Doudou said a team of specialists would begin to clean up the contamination. "We have to prevent the spread of diseases," he said, adding that the United Nations would be making an urgent appeal for more emergency aid from the world's nations.
A truck carrying relief supplies from the Church of God was attacked Friday when it entered Gonaives. People jumped on the moving truck, pried open the doors and threw out boxes of supplies.
U.N. peacekeepers shoved people off the truck and then escorted it to the mud-caked camp of Argentine troops, who stood guard as church members threw out bananas, bottles of cooking oil and secondhand clothing. A stampede erupted, with people diving into mud to grab what they could.
Planeloads of relief supplies from several nations and aid groups have arrived in Port-au-Prince, but delivery has been delayed by damaged roads and security fears.
Aid trucks must ford floodwaters and mudslides on National Route 1, likely to be more hazardous after the new rains. At least three trucks were mired in ditches along the road Friday.
Chilean troops in the Brazilian-led U.N. force were ferrying in supplies by helicopter, but not enough.
The floods from Jeanne destroyed all of the rice and fruit harvest in the Artibonite, Haiti's breadbasket, "so now the country can't even feed itself without outside help," said Gavreau, the World Food Program official.
The crisis was only the latest tragedy in Haiti, a country of 8 million people that has suffered 30 coups. Last weekend's storm was worsened by Haiti's nearly total deforestation, which left valleys surrounding Gonaives unable to hold water dumped during some 30 hours of pounding by Jeanne.