1,600 Feared Dead In Floods

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Haitians turned to U.S.-led troops and international agencies for help as the death toll climbed to about 900 following floods that ravaged Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Hundreds more are missing and presumed dead.

While U.S. and Canadian troops on Wednesday handed out rations of bread, fruit and bottled water to Haitian survivors, teams from the Red Cross and the United Nations fanned out to assess the damage.

Health officials feared as many as 1,000 people could be dead in the single southern Haitian town of Mapou, said Margarette Martin, the government's representative for the southeast region in nearby Jacmel. But only about 300 bodies had been counted so far, said Dr. Yvon Lavissiere, the health director for the region.

The town of several thousand people, located 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of the capital of Port-au-Prince, is still isolated by mud and landslides. The town is in a valley that often floods when it rains.

Martin said officials believed hundreds more may have died because houses were submerged and rescuers saw bodies underwater that they were unable to retrieve.

In the Haitian border village of Fond Verrettes, meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian troops handed out food to hundreds of survivors who lined up seeking help.

Troops in the U.S.-led force were sent to stabilize Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ouster on Feb. 29. Since then the new interim government has struggled to provide even basic services. Left bankrupt, the government has scant resources to deal with natural disasters.

Rains over the weekend lashed the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, sweeping away entire neighborhoods early Monday.

At least 417 bodies had been recovered in the Dominican Republic, and officials said some 400 were missing.

Of more than 450 bodies recovered in Haiti, about 100 were found in the southern town of Grand Gosier, said Civil Protection Director Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste. Fifty more corpses were found elsewhere in Haiti, officials said.

In Fond Verrettes, more than 158 people were missing and presumed dead.

"The river took everything, there isn't anything left," said Jermanie Vulsont, a mother who said the rushing water swept away her five children in Fond Verrettes, about 35 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince.

Rushing waters and mudslides swept away most homes in Fond Verrettes, leaving it looking like a barren riverbed with stunned residents wandering about and asking troops for help.

"For a while we didn't even realize what we were standing on," said Lance Cpl. Justin Collins, 21, of Avon, Illinois, one of about 20 U.S. Marines who went to help feed villagers. "We were standing on some parts of a neighborhood. It's clear they need more food and water."

Other troops surveyed the damage in helicopters, accompanied by U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, said U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman. U.N. officials also flew in by helicopter to survey the damage, Lapan said.

The floods struck before dawn Monday while people were sleeping.

In the Dominican border town of Jimani, Leonardo Novas awoke to the screams of his infant son while water rose in his wooden house. He huddled with his wife and three children, and shouted to his brother next door to stay inside, but it was too late.

The force of the mud took all but one wall of Novas' house.

"Everything's gone. My house and five family members," said Novas, 28, who watched his brother and the brother's family carried away in a crushing torrent of mud.

Dominican authorities buried more than 250 bodies immediately, some right where they were found, and others in a mass grave. Authorities told families there was no time to identify many of the bodies because they were badly decomposed and posed health risks if moved.

Jimani, about 100 miles east of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, is inhabited mostly by Haitian migrants who work as vendors and sugar cane cutters. Dominican officials said some of the Haitians who lost relatives may have been living in the town illegally and were afraid to come forward and identify the bodies.

The death tolls have been high because the border area is largely deforested and many of the poor have built poorly constructed homes out of wood and tin. Hundreds of homes were destroyed on both sides of the border.

The floods are some of the deadliest in the region in recent years. In 1994, Tropical Storm Gordon caused mudslides that buried at least 829 Haitians. As many as 15,000 people are estimated to have died in 1999 flooding and mudslides in Venezuela.

The Dominican government declared Jimani a disaster area, and President Hipolito Mejia has proclaimed Thursday to be a national day of mourning.

"The damage and human losses have been of such magnitude," Mejia said in his declaration, adding that sending aid is of "high national interest."