By PETER PRENGAMAN, Associated Press Writer
MAPOU, Haiti – Heavy rains threatened the waterlogged southern border of Haiti and Dominican Republic as rescue workers rushed Saturday to collect decomposing bodies and reach villagers cut off days ago when torrents and mudslides buried entire communities.
Waters were expected to rise along with the official toll of about 1,000 dead in what is being called “one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Caribbean,” according to Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria of the Organization of American States.
U.S.-led troops including Marines, Canadians and Chileans ferried food, medicine, plastic sheeting for shelter and aid workers by helicopter to the worst-hit Haitian towns of Mapou and Fond Verrettes.
The Haitian Red Cross said 70 bodies were recovered from floodwaters in Mapou on Friday and they were searching for more.
Aid workers handed out rice and beans and fresh water to survivors who said children appear to have suffered the biggest loss from flash floods and mudslides that cascaded down denuded mountains, submerging half the farming town of Mapou.
The international workers treated people who had broken limbs and gashes from aluminum roofs that tore away from homes when torrents barreled down Monday after three days of heavy rains. The Red Cross set up a clinic manned by two Cuban doctors.
But the emergency crews were working against time, warning of a possible epidemic and contaminated water supply if they do not quickly recover most bodies in the south-central part of Hispaniola island.
“It’s horrific. People are finding people in very odd and unreachable places ? even hanging from the tops of trees,” Sheyla Biamby of U.S. Catholic Relief Services said.
Half the homes in Mapou ? some 1,300 ? have been destroyed and no one knows how many bodies remain underwater, Biamby said.
A group of Dominican doctors warned decomposing bodies were buried in mass graves that are too shallow and without protective plastic sheeting at the border town of Jimani.
“The contamination is already beginning to be felt,” public health specialist Luis Roa told a radio station Friday, referring to the stench of death that shrouds the town of 12,000 people. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to rebury them.”
Dominican officials said they planned to spray disinfectant from crop-dusting planes Saturday to prevent disease.
The National Emergency Commission said it has stopped looking for bodies in Jimani, but spokesman Jose Luis German said they still were searching a nearby saltwater lake crawling with crocodiles where dozens of bodies have washed up on an islet.
He said Dominican troops continued working Saturday with French troops to erect a tent camp for some 1,300 homeless Dominicans and Haitian refugees who had crossed the border to cut sugar cane or sell goods at the market.
French troops in the U.S.-led multinational force in Haiti hurried in a road convoy to Jimani on Friday, where they buried at least 23 bodies recovered from the lake.
On the worse-hit Haitian side, aid workers expected to find many more hungry survivors and decaying bodies. U.S.-led troops packed inflatable dinghies to reach outlying villages, and used shovels and saws to free trapped people and corpses.
Homes were buried over their roofs, only the tops of palm trees showing amid bobbing blobs believed to be bodies and carcasses of pigs and goats.
U.S. Marines “are looking at the possibility of airlifting bodies” for burial elsewhere, said Lt. Col. Duane Perry, who estimated that about a third of Mapou’s 3,500 people had died.
Haiti’s government reported recovering 592 bodies by Friday and the Dominicans 442. The Haitian count did not include the 70 bodies recovered at Mapou.
“The magnitude of the disaster is much worse than we expected,” said Guy Gavreau, director of the U.N. World Food Program in Haiti.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier visited Port-au-Prince on Friday and promised urgent aid and long-term help in reversing the deforestation that is the source of deadly floods and mudslides in Haiti, where impoverished people strip mountains of trees to make charcoal.
“We are providing food and water aid, but that is not enough,” Barnier said.
Interim President Boniface Alexandre Alexandre said the government must look to relocating people in flood-prone zones.
“Every time there’s a flood, it’s always the same victims,” he said. “We need to find a better place for them, and if the appropriate land is privately owned, the government must expropriate it.”
The United States said it was providing $50,000 in emergency aid to each country, and the OAS $25,000 each. Catholic Relief Services promised $200,000.
Meanwhile, Dominican meteorologists warned of inundating rain with thunderstorms sure to hamper Saturday’s rescue efforts.
Forecasters urged people to get to high ground. That will be impossible for unknown hundreds stranded around Mapou, in a flooded valley surrounded by mountains where torrents early Monday collected silt, gravel and boulders, gathering speed as they brought down doom.
The waters swept away the wife of Ivse Toussaint, 35, and all his six children, ages 2 to 16.
“The water was moving too fast,” he said. “When it reached my head, I couldn’t see the children and pulled myself through a window and up to the roof.”
Associated Press writer Amy Bracken contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.