Thursday, January 21, 2010
Workers are carving out mass graves on a hillside
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Workers are carving out mass graves on a hillside north of Haiti's capital, using earth-movers to bury 10,000 earthquake victims in a single day while relief workers warn the death toll could increase.
Medical clinics have 12-day patient backlogs, untreated injuries are festering and makeshift camps housing thousands of survivors could foster disease, experts said.
"The next health risk could include outbreaks of diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases among hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in overcrowded camps with poor or nonexistent sanitation," said Dr. Greg Elder, deputy operations manager for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti.
Hoping to assess the scope of the crisis, World Food Program chief Josette Sheeran planned to visit Haiti on Thursday, as did European Union aid chief Karel De Gucht.
The death toll is estimated at 200,000, according to Haitian government figures relayed by the European Commission, with 80,000 buried in mass graves. The commission now estimates 2 million homeless, up from 1.5 million, and says 250,000 are in need of urgent aid.
In the sparsely populated wasteland of Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, burial workers on Wednesday said the macabre task of handling the never-ending flow of bodies was traumatizing.
"I have seen so many children, so many children. I cannot sleep at night and, if I do, it is a constant nightmare," said Foultone Fequiert, 38, his face covered with a T-shirt against the overwhelming stench.
The dead stick out at all angles from the mass graves — tall mounds of chalky dirt, the limbs of men, women and children frozen together in death. "I received 10,000 bodies yesterday alone," said Fequiert.
Workers say they have no time to give the dead proper religious burials or follow pleas from the international community that bodies be buried in shallow graves from which loved ones might eventually retrieve them.
"We just dump them in, and fill it up," said Luckner Clerzier, 39, who was helping guide trucks to another grave site farther up the road.
An Associated Press reporter counted 15 burial mounds at Clerzier's site, each covering a wide trench cut into the ground some 25 feet deep, and rising 15 feet into the air. At the larger mass grave, where Fequiert toiled, three earth-moving machines cut long trenches into the earth, readying them for more cadavers.
Others struggle to stem the flow of the dead.
More than eight days after the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, rescuers searched late into the night for survivors with dogs and sonar equipment. A Los Angeles County rescue team sent three dogs separately into the rubble on a street corner in Petionville, a suburb overlooking Port-au-Prince. Each dog picked up the scent of life at one spot.
They tested the spot and screamed into the rubble in Creole they've learned: "If you hear me, bang three times."
They heard no response, but vowed to continue.
"It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and each day the needles are disappearing," team member Steven Chin said.
One rescue was reported. The International Medical Corps said it was caring for a child found in ruins Wednesday. The boy's uncle told doctors and a nurse with the Los Angeles-based organization that relatives pulled the 5-year-old from the wreckage of his home after searching for a week, said Margaret Aguirre, an IMC spokeswoman in Haiti.
A Dutch adoption agency said Thursday that a mercy flight carrying 106 adopted children was on its way to the Netherlands from Port-au-Prince. The children on board the plane were all in the process of being adopted and already had been matched to new Dutch parents before the quake.
At the Mission Baptiste hospital south of Port-au-Prince, patients waited on benches or rolling beds while doctors and nurses raced among them, X-rays in hand.
The hospital had just received badly need supplies from soldiers of the U.S Army's 82nd Airborne Division, but hospital director John Angus said there wasn't enough. He pleaded for more doctors, casts and metal plates to fix broken limbs.
Meanwhile, a flotilla of rescue vessels led by the U.S. hospital ship Comfort steamed into Port-au-Prince harbor Wednesday to help fill gaps in the struggling global effort to deliver water, food and medical help.
Elder, of Doctors Without Borders, said that patients were dying of sepsis from untreated wounds and that some of the group's posts had 10- to 12-day backups of patients.
Adding to the terror, a 5.9-magnitude aftershock shook Haiti's capital Wednesday, sending people screaming into the streets. Some buildings collapsed and an undertaker said one woman died of a heart attack. Surgical teams and patients were forced to evacuate temporarily from at least one hospital.
At United Nations headquarters in New York, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said it was believed 3 million people are affected. Vast, makeshift camps and settlements have sprung up for survivors.
Joseph St. Juste and his 5-year-old daughter, Jessica, were among 50,000 people spending their nights at a golf course. He is afraid to stay in his home because of the aftershocks.
The survivors have put of shelters of bedsheets or cardboard boxes on fairways that snake up the hill toward a country club where U.S. paratroopers give out food daily.
St. Juste, a 36-year-old bus driver, wakes up every day and goes out to find food and water for his daughter.
"I wake up for her," he said. "Life is hard anymore. I've got to get out of Haiti. There is no life in Haiti."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Alfred de Montesquiou, Tamara Lush, Kevin Maurer, Michelle Faul, Bill Gorman and Jessica Desvarieux in Haiti; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Emma Vandore and Elaine Ganley in Paris; and Aoife White in Brussels.