GONAÏVES, Haiti — In a cathedral surrounded by mud and floodwaters, the 34-year-old motorcycle taxi driver shivered on a pew, wrapped in a sheet and delirious from fever.
He struggled to remember the names of his four children, one of whom died when two storms submerged Gonaïves and the villages around it in vile muck.
That was Sept. 1. For the next 10 days, Avel’Homme Latortue’s home had been the dank choir gallery of St. Charles Borromee Cathedral, on a plaza across from a prison. Inside, the air was stale with sweat, the pews covered with the muddy clothes of 500 people with little food or water, and with nowhere to go.
“Sleeping is hard when you’re this hungry,” Latortue said. “Waking up is hard, too.”
Authorities say at least 50,000 people are in shelters in Gonaïves. But that statistic hardly covers the extent of the tragedy.
In a metropolitan area of 300,000, four out of five homes are damaged. Those whose houses were spared are each taking in as many as 100 people, many of them total strangers.
“Every home is a shelter right now,” said Yolene Surena, the city’s top civil protection official. “Every remaining one.”
Shelter is a relative term.
In the cathedral, mud covered everything. The floor was a field of sticky brown muck. The smell of mildew mixed with that of human waste from the three portable toilets outside.
Stains three feet high on the church’s white pillars showed the depth of the torrent of water that swept through the cathedral, scattering the wooden pews as driftwood. Refugees had carried some upstairs, where they used them as beds. Most, however, slept on piles of dirty clothes.
When spears of sunlight appeared through the slits on the walls around 5:30 a.m., most of the men went out into the sun-baked plaza and flooded streets in search of food or money.
But Latortue was too weak and in too much pain to join them. He lost his mother and a daughter in Tropical Storm Hanna, and sent his three surviving daughters — ages 3, 5 and 8 — to a relative in another part of town.
Then diarrhea set in, and the fever. A fungus erupted across the right side of his chest. A woman in the church applied a concoction of yellow berries, but that did little to ease the pain.
Visited by a reporter early last week, he had been fully functional, gesturing as he spoke in a relatively clean black polo shirt. Three days later, he shook under a muddy white blanket and wore no shirt.
He passed out from time to time, and was unable to walk even a few feet across the dirt-streaked linoleum floor.
Everyone in the cathedral was hungry. Ginette Pierre’s children hadn’t eaten since last Monday, when U.N. World Food Program workers and peacekeepers from Argentina gave each three bottles of water and five high-energy biscuits. All that remained of the aid were the wrappers littering the floor.
Pierre breast-fed her youngest, but the rest made do with the water from a grumbling tanker truck driven by U.N. peacekeeping troops from Pakistan. She obsessed about keeping them clean, and their hair braided, and used some of the water rations to bathe them.
The Rev. Luckson Chery, who was in charge, had no food to distribute, and no money to help any of the people he cared for. The 36-year-old French-trained priest from Port-au-Prince took over the cathedral a year after it was flooded by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004.
“There are so many children who are sick here, I am thinking only about them,” he said, holding a Eucharist chalice.
As bad as it is in Gonaïves, aid workers fear it will get much worse. With aid groups unable to get food and water to the people who need it most, many fear starvation and disease will soon become widespread.
And with much of Haiti’s crops destroyed in the flooding, food prices have shot up in a country where half the population makes less than $1 a day. The emergency “is not now” — things will become much worse in the coming days, said Max Cosci, chief of Belgium’s Doctors Without Borders mission.
But the scene at the cathedral was bad enough. Nicole Guistinville lay on her side, struggling to breathe as a hypertension attack made her head feel like it’s exploding.
“The water took away my medicine,” she whispered. “I’m supposed to eat before I take it, but I have seven children to feed.”