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Bodies keep surfacing in hard-hit Haitian city

Cemetery workers trudge through the water, fetching bloated corpses from the muck in Haiti's second largest city. But the final death toll here will never be known.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

In this sodden city with no working morgue, nobody is counting the dead.

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.

Those counting deaths are homeless
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.

U.S. Navy boat arrives with food
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.

Families have little choice but to wait for help, and bury their dead.

Farmer Selondieu Rene, 47, was buried Tuesday, a week after he drowned trying to save his wife from floodwaters loosed by Tropical Storm Hanna. His family recovered his body on Monday, after the waters receded, and spent the last of their savings — 30,000 gourdes ($770) — on a brown lacquered coffin.

Bystanders winced at the smell as men carried his casket toward a white plaster tomb. There was no ceremony. A gray helicopter from the USS Kearsarge flew overhead.

"He put us on the roof and then he went back to get his wife," said Iren, 22, one of Rene's six children. "But he was not strong enough to swim and he disappeared."