Cries of adulation — and hunger — followed Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean and actor Matt Damon as they toured flood-ravaged Gonaives to call attention to widespread suffering in the marooned city.
Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike submerged the Haitian city and cut off roadways. Where waters have receded, streets remain a stinking mud bath and homes are carpeted with muck and encrusted pots, pans and laundry.
“I’m speechless, I can’t believe it,” said Damon, looking down from a U.N. helicopter at people living on the rooftops of flooded homes.
The four-hour visit Sunday passed in a blur of stenches, colors and noise. A man on a bicycle tried to keep up with Damon and Jean’s truck, shouting, “I love you, Wyclef.” Jean raised his hand, but couldn’t smile back.
“It’s inhumane. I wish there was a word in the dictionary. No human should be living like this,” said Jean, who became famous through his Grammy-winning band, The Fugees, and later emerged as a solo artist.
As they turned onto the flooded Rue Christophe, another pickup packed with women sloshed within arm’s reach. Face-to-face with the celebrities, the women cried, “We’re hungry!” A young man calf-deep in water raised both arms and shouted, “Fix our roads. Fix our city!”
Damon and Jean encouraged help for the United Nations to raise more than US0 million for 800,000 Haitians in need after four tropical storms and hurricanes have struck the country since mid-August.
Jean’s Yele Haiti charity is helping the World Food Program and the Organization of American States-affiliated Pan American Development Foundation distribute food to 3,000 families. The convoy visited a school shelter Sunday to hand out cooking oil and bags of beans.
Proud and tumultuous Gonaives is where Haiti declared independence from France in 1804 as the world’s first black republic. Bloody 1985 protests led to the downfall of the father-son Duvalier dictatorship and in 2004 a deadly march fomented the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Fears that unrest is simmering here has led U.N. officials to distribute food at night under Argentine soldiers’ guard. Haitian officials have discussed building new settlements for vulnerable residents above the current city.
Once emergency aid started arriving four days after the storm, the U.N. agencies began ratcheting up food distributions to reach as many as 12,000 people a day. More than 120,000 people are in shelters in the Artibonite region, which includes Gonaives, desperate for water and food, the Haitian government reported.
Damon and Jean waded through knee-deep floodwaters and climbed a stage outside the Gonaives cathedral, where 500 people have taken refuge in the choir gallery.
The pair did not go into the cathedral, but Jean sang for a few minutes to a crowd outside. When he later tried to leave, people swept him into the streets. Admirers, some asking for money, clung to U.N. trucks as they drove away.