Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Clearing up in Haiti
Hans Jaap Melissen's picture
Port au Prince, Haiti
Port au Prince, Haiti

Haiti quake death toll well under 100,000

Published on : 23 February 2010 - 1:02am | By Hans Jaap Melissen (photo: RNW )
More about:

Haiti has buried an estimated 52,000 victims since the earthquake on 12 January 2010. More bodies still lie under the rubble, but the total number of casualties will not surpass 100,000 - that's according to observation and research on the ground in Haiti, carried out by Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

This number is considerably smaller than the number of 217,000 victims the Haitian government claims to have counted so far, and far fewer than the estimated final count of 300,000 mentioned by President René Préval just last Sunday.

Listen to a report by correspondent Hans Jaap Melissen

“Haiti did not die” (see photo) is the text on the T-shirts worn by more and more Haitians out on the streets. It appears to be the first sign of a more realistic approach to this disaster, about which it can be concluded, after weeks of research on the ground by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, that the actual death toll is much lower than the Haitian government estimates.

Haiti did not die T-shirt
Pap Peri (pas peris) "Did Not Die"

To gain a complete understanding of the actual figures it's important to look beyond Port-au-Prince. The epicentre of the earthquake was actually located in Léogâne, half an hour's drive west of the capital. In this area, 80 percent of all buildings were either heavily damaged or totally destroyed. Soon after the earthquake, the government was already reporting that 20,000 to 30,000 deaths had occurred in Léogâne. But local authorities say that - out of a community of 200,000 people - they have now buried 3,364 dead, a number which may rise to 5,000.

In the southern town of Jacmel, for example, there weren't 4,000 victims, as initially reported, but 400. In Petit-Goâve, Grand-Goâve and Gressier, officials have meticulously counted the bodies and arrived at a grand total of 1,367 dead, including 20 victims yet to be dug up from under the rubble. 

A 'census' of cemeteries
Back in Port-au-Prince, 18,000 victims have been brought to the main cemetery, while a 'tour' of other graveyards yields a maximum total of 7,000 victims. Here, too, those in charge have kept count of the victims or are able to provide reliable estimates.

Fairly soon after the earthquake the government began having bodies transported to mass graves in Titanyen, outside the capital. But conversations with people on the spot and those involved in moving the bodies of the dead have revealed that that these graves hold 20,000 victims at the very most. And that is a very 'generous' estimate of the total, perhaps over the actual mark by as much as 7,000. In recent days, the number of bodies being brought here each day has been no higher than 30 to 50.

Titanyen has, in fact, for years been a place outside the city where unclaimed bodies from hospitals have been brought for burial. It's a practice that continues today. A generous estimate now would put the total number of people buried in Haiti so far at close to 52,000.

Still under the rubble
An important factor when it comes to establishing the final body count is, of course, the number of people still unaccounted for - those still buried beneath collapsed buildings. There are thousands of these victims, that is certain, but probably not many tens of thousands. It is precisely those places where large numbers of people were killed together – such as schools, hotels and supermarkets – which had priority for search parties and which have been thoroughly cleared of debris. Even if one were to take a relatively high estimate of 30,000 victims still lying under the rubble, then the total number of casualties would still be a ‘mere’ 82,000.

One could then add in an additional 'safety' margin to account for victims whose bodies may have been removed and buried privately elsewhere by their families and - more rarely still - those whose mortal remains disappeared into the sea, or were carried off amongst the rubble. After all, it's important to remember that shortly after the earthquake, the government called on the people - through those radio stations that were still on the air - to bring the bodies of the dead to the roadsides, or place them outside churches or cemeteries for transport to the mass graves. So let’s assume as many as 10,000 Haitians did not end up in 'official' mass graves or cemeteries. Even then the death toll would still not surpass 92,000. And even then, that number is one that incorporates 'generous' estimates and large 'safety' factors.

Remarkable effect
“The fact that the death toll isn’t as high as we first expected is due, among other things, to a lot of people having been out on the streets at 16:53,” says Desir Marxerne, a town council representative in Leogane. “And those who were inside often managed to escape just in time.”

The quake lasted 35 seconds. Many buildings did not collapse immediately, but caved in - for example - some 20 seconds later, giving people time to run outside. True enough, many were injured as they escaped, but they did not die.

When questions about the death toll are put to government officials they have a remarkable effect, for no one seems to be responsible for the official body count. Everyone refers you on to Marie-Laurence Lassèque, Haiti’s Culture and Communications Minister, who for weeks has maintained that the number of dead exceeds 200,000. Yet she is unable to provide a convincing explanation as to how she has arrived at this figure. 


Listen to an interview with Katherine Knowles of the Red Cross in the Netherlands

Figures often unreliable
The Red Cross, which is the main aid organisation operating in Haiti, says it's common for figures to be wildly exaggerated in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. This is because damage to infrastructure makes it difficult to count bodies accurately, says Red Cross spokeswoman Katherine Knowles: "It does happen after a big disaster like this that other figures are published or it turns out the figures are different than had been published in the beginning. Of course, straight after a disaster like this it's really hard to know what kind of figures are true and what the actual figures are."

The Red Cross takes its own body count from official UN statistics and says it's more concerned with the number of survivors than what the death toll is, says Katherine Knowles: "Although the amount of deaths is very important to see the scale of a disaster, what the Red Cross does do is identify the number of people we can help in that area. At this point we are focussing our aid on 400,000 people in Haiti."

The United Nations says it is not conducting any independent research into the Haitian death toll. It says it will go by the official Haitian figures for the time being. In the meantime, criticism of President Preval is growing. Opponents argue that he did not show and has not shown sufficient leadership after the quake and that he allowed foreigners, such as the Americans, too much say in what has happened since.

The government, in turn, continues to deflect this criticism by claiming the crisis was so extremely  immense, it had no choice. In that regard, a lower death toll would in no way diminish the immensity of the crisis, but it might undermine somewhat this claim on the part of the Haitian government.


Recent articles

Most popular news in this dossier

Disaster is the only certainty in Haiti

Disaster is the only certainty in Haiti

Haiti has once again been struck by the forces of nature. The earthquake is just the latest in a series of...
Clearing up in Haiti

Haiti quake death toll well under 100,000

Haiti has buried an estimated 52,000 victims since the earthquake on 12 January 2010. More bodies still lie...
Benin voodoo rituals

Benin voodoo to calm evil spirits in Haiti

The devastation of the earthquake in Haiti has left no one indifferent, least of all the people of Benin, an...
The Dutch check for Haiti aid (ANP Photo)

Dutch donate 83 million euros for Haiti aid

The Netherlands' national fundraising day for Haiti has collected 41.2 million euros for the quake-stricken...
Powerful earthquake rocks Haiti

100,000 feared dead in Haiti earthquake

Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive is warning that over 100,000 people may have been killed as a...


Mustafa ** Ch 24 February 2010 - 10:26am / Nederland

The earthquake was a big disaster for Haiti and the reaffirmation that he has left tens of thousands of Zhaya addition to Khosairalamadip and moral place of the country and citizens alike. And about what was said about possible overstatement of the this report on casualties. I say that can happen this but I this is not the first time. I was important and what can be saved is to save lives and try to compensate the affected governments and the international community, which was for many peoples humane and honorable positions of the Dutch people in the rescue of victims by collecting donations large and quickly.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

Mollom CAPTCHA (play audio CAPTCHA)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated.

Dossiers RNW

Video highlights

Sex education starts in first grade
In the Netherlands children sometimes start receiving sex education as...
This week in the Netherlands
Former Nazi assassin Heinrich Boere is convicted of murdering three members...
Reviving Netherlands-India business ties
It was in the early 20th century, during British colonial rule, when Dutch...
Labour’s embarrassment won’t tip the elections
The four Labour MPs who were exposed in the British media in the latest...

Music programmes