Hundreds Are Dead In Caribbean Floods
By Peter Prengaman
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page A20
JIMANI, Dominican Republic, May 25 -- Sobbing villagers tore through heaps of mud with their bare hands Tuesday, searching for loved ones as the death toll from flooding in the Dominican Republic and Haiti rose to at least 363. A U.S.-led military force ferried emergency aid to a hard-hit Haitian town.
The flooding surged after torrential rains forced a river in the Dominican border town of Jimani to burst its banks before daybreak Monday.
A reporter counted at least 180 bodies on the Dominican side of the island of Hispaniola by Tuesday afternoon. Another 100 were buried in a mass grave, according to Lt. Virgilio Mejia of the Dominican National Rescue Commission.
There were 83 confirmed deaths on the Haitian side, and the toll in both countries was expected to rise.
"I've looked at the bodies in the morgue and couldn't recognize any of them," said Jude Joseph, 30, who came from Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince to sell rice at a border market and visit family members in Bobmita, La Quarenta and Barrio El Tanque, neighborhoods of Jimani that were swept away in the floods.
"I don't know what to do. I've been left with nothing," said Joseph, who was looking for nine missing relatives late Tuesday.
They were among more than 250 unaccounted for in the Dominican Republic. Sixty-two were missing in Haiti, most of them in the town of Fond-Verrette.
More than 100 U.S. troops and others from the multinational peacekeeping force in Haiti flew to Fond-Verrette with bottled water, medical supplies and food, said a force spokesman, U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Dave Lapan. Troops returned to their bases but were expected to return on Wednesday.
Rain has pelted the island for weeks, and a downpour Monday caused the Solie River to burst its banks, sweeping away the three neighborhoods of wooden shacks built mostly by Haitian migrants working in this Dominican town. At least 50 of the dead on the Dominican side were Haitians.
Outside Jimani, emergency workers wearing surgical masks and white gloves watched as trucks dumped scores of corpses into a 15-foot ditch. More bodies were on the way.
The raging waters carried some victims as far as six miles downstream, said Maximo Noves Espinal, an emergency official in Jimani.
The Dominican government issued an alert Sunday, warning people that rivers might swell with the rain. But Jimani, more than 100 miles west of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, has only limited access to radio broadcasts.
People whose houses were still standing on Tuesday scooped water from their living rooms. Chairs and mattresses floated in deep pools of water as dark clouds threatened more rain.
The U.S. military personnel bringing aid are part of a 3,600-member multinational task force was sent to stabilize Haiti when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted on Feb. 29.
Haitian officials were struggling to determine the full extent of the tragedy. Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue was expected to visit the scene.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company