By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The death toll from days of heavy rains that triggered flooding and mudslides in earthquake-ravaged Haiti has climbed to 23, an official said on Wednesday.
The deaths and damage caused by the first major rainfall of the Atlantic hurricane season have raised concerns about the ability of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, to respond to a major storm as it works to stem an eight-month-old cholera outbreak that has killed about 5,400 people.
Emergency crews cleared rocks, trees and downed power lines from roads in the Haitian capital on Wednesday and aid groups fanned out to further assess the damage.
The rains turned dirt roads in Port-au-Prince into muddy streams, flattened ramshackle homes and flooded tent encampments where hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake still live.
At least six people were reported missing, said Nadia Louchard, a coordinator with Haiti's Civil Protection Department.
"We are asking the population to be vigilant and to leave areas at risk when it is raining," she added.
The rains eased in Port-au-Prince but weather forecasts showed more precipitation was likely in coming days. Torrential rains also set off flooding in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
Some Haitians wondered whether the government was adequately prepared to deal with a more powerful storm if one were to hit the impoverished country.
"If these rains can cause so much damage, what would happen if there was a real disaster?" asked Angeline Mauger, 38.
Last year, Haiti escaped a potential disaster when Hurricane Tomas skirted the country, flooding some coastal towns but largely sparing the crowded camps in Port-au-Prince.
Flooding set off by Tomas, however, is believed to have worsened Haiti's cholera outbreak, which started 10 months after the January 2010 earthquake killed more than 300,000 people.
A huge U.N.-led humanitarian operation has helped reduce the fatality rate from the cholera epidemic from peaks last year when dozens of victims were dying every day.
Still, humanitarian workers say flooding is causing fresh outbreaks of the deadly diarrheal disease spread by contaminated water and food.
"We can never say we are fully prepared," said Louchard. "The country has its structural problems. We are just trying to do our best."
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Todd Eastham)