Rain soaks homeless Haitians, collapses shacks

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A pre-dawn rain shower today soaked tens of thousands living in rudimentary shelters in Haiti’s capital, an alarming taste of the havoc a sustained tropical downpour could wreak on this earthquake-ravaged country.

Rain collapsed cardboard shacks and soaked clothing and bedding at the Marassa 14 camp, where about 2,500 earthquake-displaced people live in a dry riverbed. People scrambled to shore up leaks.

Most of the estimated 1.2 million people that the U.N. says are living in temporary camps across Haiti dwell in simple structures made of bed sheets and plastic sheeting. Officials warn that more permanent shelter must be had before the rainy season begins within weeks.

Downtown, more than 1,000 people demanded shelter in separate protests outside the collapsed National Palace and at the police post where government ministers have temporary offices.

“They’re not giving us tents. It’s raining and now we are in trouble,” said one protester, Saintel Petit.

The European Union, criticized for its slow response to the earthquake, said today it will mount a military operation to bring shelter before the start of the rainy season, usually in April. Officials did not immediately give details on what kind of shelter the EU plans to provide.

Wildly conflicting death tolls from Haitian officials, meanwhile, have raised suspicions that no one really knows how many people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Communications Ministry triggered confusion Wednesday by releasing a statement saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government following the quake. It later withdrew the statement, saying there was an error and blaming a typo.

The official estimated death toll, according to the Interior Ministry, is between 217,000 and 230,000.

The higher figure equals the number of people killed in the tsunami Dec. 26, 2004, that devastated a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean following a magnitude-9.2 earthquake.

A third of Haiti’s 9 million people were crowded into the chaotic capital when the quake struck a few minutes before 5 p.m. About 250,000 houses and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, according to government estimates, many crushing people inside.

For days, people piled bodies by the side of the road or left them half-buried under the rubble. Countless more remain under collapsed buildings, identified only by a pungent odor.

No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death estimate. Many agencies that usually can help figure casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead. The Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort — foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials — quotes only the government death figures.

That number has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23, to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. President Rene Preval has said 170,000 bodies were buried in mass graves.

That may represent only a piece of the toll — but nobody at his office was available to clarify.

It’s common in major disasters to see large discrepancies in death tolls: Governments may use lower figures to save face, or higher figures to attract foreign aid. In Haiti’s case, however, the very institutions responsible for compiling information were themselves devastated, so reaching a death toll is particularly difficult.

Even some officials express skepticism the government is keeping count.

“I personally think that a lot of information being given to the public by the government is estimates,” Haiti’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Roc Magloire said.

Many citizens are even more cynical, accusing the government of inflating the numbers to attract foreign aid and to take the spotlight off its own lackluster response to the disaster.

“Nobody knows how they came up with the death count. There’s no list of names. No list of who may still be trapped. No pictures of people they buried,” 45-year-old shop owner Jacques Desal said. “No one is telling us anything. They just want the aid.”

A few days after the quake, the state-run public works department, known as the CNE, began picking up bodies from the streets and dropping them in trenches dug by earth movers in Titanyen, just north of the capital. The trenches are 6 meters (20 feet) deep and filled 6 meters (20 feet) high.

Preval’s count of 170,000 bodies buried does not include people buried in private ceremonies. But at Titanyen on Wednesday, worker Estelhomme Saint Val said nobody had counted the bodies.

“The trucks were just dropping people wherever, and then we would move in and cover them up,” he said. “We buried people all along the roads and roadsides. It was impossible to do a count.”

Patrick Ball of Benetech.org, who combines math modeling with on-the-ground research to try to determine death tolls in conflicts, was skeptical of the Haitian government estimate.

“One of the things that distinguishes a disaster like this is a complete breakdown in communications infrastructure,” said Ball. “So how are they going to know the difference between who is dead and who is missing?”

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