September 10, 2008
Uncounted Dead in Hard-Hit Haiti
By Jonathan M. Katz Associated Press
GONAIVES, Haiti -- Cemetery workers trudge through the water with a wooden cart, fetching dozens of bloated corpses from the muck and carting them off for burial. The city's 15 police officers have buried dozens more, and nobody knows how many were swept out to sea.
And after four tropical storms in less than a month, Haiti's death toll will never be known.
"The water is bringing us the bodies," cemetery director Jules Jean-Baptiste Jeudy said Tuesday. "If they have a family, then they get a coffin. If we just find them on the street, we just bury them."
Working without electricity, face masks or gloves, Jeudy and his 10 employees roam the streets of this low-lying coastal city where Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike sent rivers of mud up to the rooftops. Other Gonaives residents have taken it upon themselves to bury their relatives or neighbors.
Officials say at least 331 people have been killed in the storms in this desperately poor Caribbean nation. In the hard-hit region of Artibonite, which includes Gonaives, Hanna killed at least 172.
As the floodwaters recede and more bodies surface, Haiti's government has all but given up trying to update the death toll. A committee that typically keeps track of such things in Gonaives disasters has disbanded, because its members were among the tens of thousands who lost their homes.
"Gonaives is an exceptional case," said Abel Nazaire, a spokesman for the civil protection department. "The committee is nonexistent because they are homeless."
The cemetery director's nephew, Jonas, has been trying to keep track of the burials there in a red composition notebook. He had made 62 entries by Tuesday, 40 of them describing unnamed children.
"No. 38 -- A girl from Parc Vincent," one read. The word "blanket" followed, indicating the child was buried in a mass grave without a coffin.
"We made a big hole and put the bodies in," said Jeudy, 68, whose brown shoes were wet from flood waters.
Police Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille said his poorly equipped force -- 15 officers and three cars for a population of 160,000 -- has buried dozens of badly decomposed and unidentifiable corpses in graves outside the city.
Relief has been slow to arrive to Gonaives, where parts of the city were still under water Tuesday and about 70,000 people remained in shelters, according to World Food Program representative Myrta Kaulard.
On Tuesday morning, an amphibious U.S. Navy boat reached Gonaives with 140 metric tons of food from the USS Kearsarge, which was diverted from Colombia on a humanitarian mission, according to Cmdr. Jim Spots.
The U.S. force was helping to solve logistical problems that delayed aid deliveries across Haiti. Two World Food Program trucks spent two days getting from the capital to the southern city of Les Cayes, only to become marooned on the way back by cracks in a bridge. A U.S. helicopter crew made the same journey in less than an hour Tuesday.
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