Death toll rises to more than 860 from flooding

Thursday, May 27, 2004

FOND VERRETTES, Haiti -- Ferrying emergency supplies to villagers devastated in deadly floods, U.S. and Canadian troops on Wednesday struggled to assess the scope of a disaster that has killed more than 860 people and left hundreds missing in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The death toll has risen steadily since reports began emerging of Monday's disaster on the island of Hispanola. Late Wednesday night, Haitian officials said 200 more bodies had been recovered, bringing the toll in that country to about 450. There have 417 confirmed deaths in the Dominican Republic.

Dominican authorities told families there was no time to identify many of the bodies because they were badly decomposed and posed health risks if moved. Many bodies were dumped in a mass grave or buried by Dominican soldiers where they were found.

"I can't find them. I didn't know they were burying them. They should let me find them first," said Leonardo Novas, who lost five family members.

Survivors painted terrifying tales of sleeping families carried away in Monday's floods, which devastated parts of the island of Hispanola, which is shared by the two countries.

"Everything's gone. My house and five family members," said Novas, 28, who watched his brother and the brother's family carried away in a crushing torrent of mud.

On the other side of the border, troops from a U.S.-led multinational force sent to stabilize Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted on Feb. 29 flew by helicopters to the town of Fond Verrettes, bringing food and water to thousands of desperate Haitians.

"The river took everything, there isn't anything left," said Jermanie Vulsont, a mother who said the rushing water swept away her five children early Monday in Fond Verrettes.

The body of a 5-year-old boy was among many recovered Wednesday in Fond Verrettes, about 35 miles southeast of Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince. The death toll was expected to rise as more bodies are found.

But mudslides have prevented rescue teams from reaching many parts of the two countries. Some 400 people were still missing in the Dominican Republic and more than 160 were unaccounted for in Haiti.

The death toll has been high because the border area is largely deforested, allowing flash floods carrying mud and debris to easily sweep away flimsy homes of wood and tin.

Haitian officials said late Wednesday about 300 bodies were recovered in a southern Haitian town of Mopou, said Margarette Martin, the government's representative for the southeast region in nearby Jacmel.

Workers recovered about 100 corpses in the nearby town of Grand Gosier, said Haiti's Civil Protection Director Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste. Another 50 corpses were found elsewhere across the country.

The rains saturated Fond Verrettes, prompting mudslides and landslides from an adjacent hill to cover most of the town. On Wednesday, it looked like a pocked riverbed with stunned residents wandering around and asking troops for help.

"For a while we didn't even realize what we were standing on," said U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Collins, 21, of Avon, Ill., one of about 20 Marines who went to help feed villagers. "We were standing on some parts of a neighborhood. It's clear they need more food and water."

Manie Ceceron, 37, lost her five children. "The rain came. I was in the house and I ran. I couldn't see anything. I didn't see my children. I never saw my children."

In the Dominican Republic, the recovered bodies included seven sun-bleached corpses that were seen on the banks of Cabritos Island by a photographer from The Associated Press. The island lies in the crocodile-infested, saltwater Lake Enriquillo, just east of Jimani.

The bodies were believed to have been swept away in the rain and carried to the banks of the lake, said Eddy Olivares, operations chief for the Dominican Civil Defense, who said he expected more corpses would be found this week.

More than 150 corpses were buried where they were found in Jimani on Wednesday. Another 100 or so were buried in a mass grave on Tuesday.

As sunshine baked the soggy earth Wednesday, residents tried to repair damaged houses. Hundreds on both sides of the border were destroyed and international organizations were considering relocating several families left homeless in the rains.

Jimani, about 100 miles east of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, is inhabited mostly by Haitian migrants who work as vendors and sugar cane cutters, trying to make a better life. Dominican officials said some of the Haitians who lost family members may have been living in the town illegally and scared to identify bodies.

The Dominican government declared Jimani a disaster area, and President Hipolito Mejia said Thursday would be a national day of mourning.

"The damage and human losses have been of such magnitude," Mejia said in his declaration, adding that sending aid is of "high national interest."

Associated Press writer Jose P. Monegro in Santo Domingo contributed to this report.

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