Report questions casualty count for Haiti earthquake

Miami HeraldMay 31, 2011 

A new report estimating that far fewer people died or were left homeless in last year’s Haiti earthquake will have no bearing on United States commitment to the disaster-prone nation, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which commissioned the report, distanced itself from its author, saying it did not ask him to evaluate the death toll.

“The U.S. government, including USAID, remains steadfast in our support of Haiti and its people today, tomorrow and for the long-term,‘’ Carleene Dei, mission director of USAID Haiti, said in a statement. “Any comment on the death toll of the tragic earthquake of January 2010 that affected so many, is beyond the scope of the commission and purely reflects the views of the author.’’

The report, obtained by The Miami Herald and under review by USAID, states that between 46,190 and 86,961 people died in the earthquake. Also, it states that no more than 66,625 quake victims are living in hundreds of camps scattered around the capital. The estimates, according to the report, were arrived at by “sampling one part of the Port-au-Prince population.’’

All of the estimates are well below official figures cited by Haitian or foreign governments struggling to help Haiti recover from the destruction.

For fatalities, the U.S. government uses 230,000, citing a Haitian government figure. The Haitian government, on the one year anniversary of the earthquake, upped the figure to 316,000 without explanation. All refer to the International Organization for Migration for the number of homeless quake victims currently living in tents.

“It stretches the credibility to suggest that there are less than 100,000 [internally displaced persons] in camps when we physically counted 680,000 in March,’’ Leonard Doyle, IOM spokesman in Haiti, told The Herald. “A few camps in Port-au-Prince easily exceed their IDP number.’’

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti also questioned the report’s methodology, saying it excluded “a vast majority of people.’’

“We are very surprised about the number, the people in the camps and the numbers of deaths,’’ said Emmanuelle Schneider, OCHA spokeswoman. “We predict by the end of the year, we will still have 500,000 people in camps. I am not sure this report will have a major impact. Once again, we have to look at the internal inconsistencies in the report.’’

Timothy T. Schwartz, the report’s author who has written critically of USAID assistance in Haiti, did not return an email seeking comment. In a blog, he defended the methodology and cited the fluctuating figures from former Haitian President René Préval and various international organizations in the chaotic days following the disaster to defend the report’s conclusions.

“It seems pretty clear that no one, not the government nor anyone else, had any idea how many people were killed,’’ Schwartz wrote. “But the interesting thing is that, while I am not impugning any motivations, almost everyone who had anything to do with any type of official agency or NGO seemed deliberately bent on skewing the numbers as high as they possibly could. And they did so with total disregard for the evidence.’’

Neither President Michel Martelly nor Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive responded to requests for comment.

While the number of people buried in mass graves just north of the capital city may never be known, The Miami Herald concluded last year that the government’s death toll count at the time of 230,000 was plausible. Herald reporters interviewed cemetery workers who reopened crypts to bury earthquake dead, government truck drivers and workers in charge of keeping logs and delivering bodies to mass graves. The logs, sheets of paper with written tallies, were later to shown to a Herald reporter.

Still, the timing of the report has some worried about its impact on future aid. It comes as some U.S. lawmakers are questioning the reconstruction efforts in Haiti with some calling it a failure, and as the fate of the interim Haitian government commission charged with overseeing the recovery hangs in the balance. Also, a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report has raised doubts about the current and future success of the effort. Meanwhile, Haiti continues to struggle to get donors to make good on nearly $5 billion in promised pledges for the first five years.

“If the new reports’ figures are correct or remain unchallenged, then this will probably mean fewer foreign resources will go to Haiti,’’ said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “In any case, I am puzzled about the timing of the report. I am also very skeptical about these types of quantitative studies when done in Haiti.’’

Those working on the ground in Haiti, however, say the report will have no bearing on their work.

“It really isn’t a question of numbers. The reality is whole communities were devastated and aid is needed to rebuild,’’ said Sam Worthington of Inter-Action, an alliance of U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations involved in Haiti’s recovery efforts. “Tens of thousands lost their lives, buildings crumbled and neighborhoods were devastated. It made people respond. I don’t think it will impact enthusiasm for private giving because people want to save lives, help people rebuild and have some degree of comforts while they are in camps.’’

As for whether the report’s final conclusions will determine how much money will flow from donor communities in tough economic times, Worthington said, “I believe that will be determined by the performance of the new Haitian government.’’

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service