Haiti says 200 000 may be dead

As many as 200 000 people died in the earthquake that devastated Haiti and three-quarters of the capital, Port-au-Prince, will need to be rebuilt, authorities in the Caribbean country said on Friday.

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“We have already collected around 50 000 dead bodies. We anticipate there will be between 100 000 and 200 000 dead in total, although we will never know the exact number,” Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime told Reuters.

About 40 000 bodies had been buried in mass graves, said Secretary of State for Public Safety Aramick Louis.

If the casualty figures turn out to be accurate, the 7.0 magnitude quake that hit impoverished Haiti on Tuesday would be one of the 10 deadliest earthquakes ever recorded.

Three days after it struck, gangs of robbers had begun preying on survivors living in makeshift camps on sidewalks and streets strewn with rubble and decomposing bodies, as quake aftershocks rippled through the hilly neighbourhoods.

President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive were living in and coordinating the government response from judicial police headquarters near the airport and their main concern was that desperation was turning to violence in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

“I do not have a home, I do not have a telephone, this is my palace now,” the shell-shocked president, whose government house collapsed in the quake, told Reuters in an interview.

“We have to make sure there is gas available … for the trucks collecting the bodies. The hospitals are full, they are overwhelmed,” Preval said.

Authorities reported some looting and growing anger among survivors despairing over the delay in life-saving assistance, as the United States and other nations rushed to deliver food, water and medical supplies through a jammed airport, a smashed seaport and roads littered with rubble.

Fighting for food
“There have been some incidents where people were looting or fighting for food. They are desperate, they have been three days without food or any assistance,” said UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, whose 9 000-member mission in Haiti lost at least 36 of its own when its headquarters collapsed in the quake.

Le Roy told The PBS NewsHour that law and order remains under control “for the time being” but warned that hunger will fuel trouble if aid does not arrive quickly.

“We have to make sure that the situation doesn’t unravel, but for that we need very much to ensure that the assistance is coming as quickly as possible so that the people who are dying for food and medicine get them as soon as possible,” he said.

President Barack Obama, who pledged an initial $100-million in quake relief, promised the United States would do what it takes to save lives and get Haiti back on its feet. “The scale of the devastation is extraordinary … and the losses are heartbreaking,” Obama said at the White House.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit on Saturday and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will travel to Haiti on Sunday.

Planes and ships arrived with rescue teams, search dogs, tents, water purification units, food, doctors and telecom teams, but faced a bottleneck at the small airport.

The US State Department said Haiti’s government had granted temporary control of the nation’s main airport to the United States to speed earthquake relief work.

The US military aimed to have about 1 000 troops on the ground in Haiti on Friday and thousands more in ships offshore. The total will reach 9 000 to 10 000 troops by Monday.

The United States said the arrival of its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson with 19 helicopters on Friday would open a second significant channel to deliver help. US Navy helicopters had begun taking water ashore and ferrying injured people to a field hospital near the airport.

No water, no supplies
The Pan-American Health Organisation said at least eight hospitals and health centres in Port-au-Prince had collapsed or sustained damage and were unable to function.

“We have no supplies. We need surgical gloves, antibiotics, antiseptic, disinfectant. We have nothing. Not even water. We have children out here with dry mouths and no water to give them,” said one doctor, Jean Dieudonne Occelien.

Police were scarcely seen on the streets, and although some Brazilian UN peacekeepers were patrolling, there were reports of sporadic scavenging, some looting and one report of gunshots in downtown Port-au-Prince on Friday.

At one collapsed supermarket, scores of people swarmed over the rubble to try to reach the food underneath. Just outside the Cite Soleil slum, desperate people crowded around a burst water pipe jostling to drink from the pipe or fill up buckets.

“Some aid is slowly getting through, but not to many people,” said Margaret Aguirre, a senior official with International Medical Corps.

Raggedly dressed survivors held out their arms to reporters touring the city, begging for food and water.

Some survivors, angry over the delay in getting aid, built roadblocks with corpses on Thursday in one part of the city.

Trucks piled with corpses have been carrying bodies to hurriedly excavated mass graves outside the city, but thousands of bodies are still believed buried under rubble.

Health experts say that while dead bodies smell unpleasant, in cases where people have been killed by trauma and not by contagious diseases such as cholera, there is little health risk from even large numbers of decomposing corpses.

Health Minister Alex Larsen told Reuters three-quarters of Port-au-Prince will have to be rebuilt.

“We have to reconstruct everything,” said President Preval. “The palace fell down, the parliament has crumbled, the justice palace has fallen down.” – Reuters

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