GONAIVES, Haiti – Workers used dump trucks to empty more than 100 bodies into a 14-foot-deep hole on Wednesday – the first mass grave for the more than 1,070 flood victims of Tropical Storm Jeanne. Bystanders shrieked, held their noses against the stench and demanded that officials collect bodies in waterlogged fields.
The government late Wednesday said up to 1,250 people were still missing and that the death toll could rise to 2,000 people.
Meteorologists, meanwhile, said Jeanne could strike the United States by this weekend. It was too soon to tell where, but the National Hurricane Center in Miami warned people in the northwest and central Bahamas and along the southeast U.S. coast to beware of dangerous surf and rip currents kicked up by Jeanne in the coming days.
In Gonaives, U.N. peacekeepers fired into the air to keep a hungry crowd at bay as aid workers handed out the first food in days for some in this city devastated by the floods. Residents were growing impatient because of decaying bodies and a lack of food and drinking water.
“We’re demanding they come and take the bodies from our fields. Dogs are eating them,” said Jean Lebrun, a 35-year-old farmer. “We can only drink the water people died in.”
Dieufort Deslorges of the government’s civil protection agency said 1,013 bodies had been recovered in Gonaives and 58 elsewhere. He said some of the missing likely died and that their bodies washed out to sea.
In Gonaives, rescuers pulled bodies from mud and rubble – some still under water five days after Jeanne lashed the area with torrential rains for some 30 hours – then added them to the pile in body bags that lay in mud and grime in front of three morgues.
Red Cross, government officials and aid workers met Wednesday to discuss how to dispose of the flyblown and decomposing corpses.
On Wednesday, government adviser Carl Murat Cantave revealed they had come up against opposition when Red Cross workers took a truckload of bodies to the Bois Marchand cemetery on Monday and were stoned by residents.
He said police had negotiated with residents about the health hazards of leaving the corpses unburied, and persuaded them to agree. Aid workers said the cemetery is the only one in the city not submerged by floodwaters.
Graveyard manager Bony Jeudy said 78 people have been buried at Bois Marchand, some in mass graves, since Monday.
“They come from all over, mostly on wooden carts. Adults, children and babies. They were brought in by friends, families and strangers,” he said of the bodies.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said contaminated water raised concerns about possible outbreaks of water-related diseases.
“The situation is not getting better because people have been without food or water for three or four days,” said the federation’s representative in Haiti, Hans Havik. “The population is getting more and more desperate. People are getting more aggressive.”