Haiti death toll: Government says toll could be massive, but firm numbers elusive

The Haiti earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and the Haitian government is warning that "hundreds of thousands" could be dead. But death tolls are frequently inaccurate in the immediate aftermath of such disasters.

Carlos Barria / Reuters
Residents camp outside their houses for fear of a recurrence the day after a major earthquake hit the capital Port-au-Prince, Wednesday.

A Haitian official at the United Nation's said on Wednesday that 100,000 of his countrymen had died in the earthquake the struck near Port-au-Prince, the capital, late on Tuesday and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN that he's worried the death toll could climb into the hundreds of thousands.

While their worst fears are understandable, given the scale of damage to buildings and homes being revealed in videos uploaded to Youtube and by Haitian's using the social networking site Twitter, the early hours and days after such disasters are always times of great confusion, when telephone networks and computer systems are down and many roads impassable, making it difficult to estimate the true extent of the damage. That can sometimes lead to the double reporting of deaths, happened upon by different local officials or aid workers.

Mr. Bellerive explained, in his interview with CNN, how hard it is to be sure. "I hope that (estimate of hundreds of thousands) is not true, because I hope the people had the time to get out," he said. "Because we have so (many) people on the streets right now, we don't know exactly where they were living. But so many, so many buildings, so many neighborhoods totally destroyed, and some neighborhoods we don't even see people."

Separately, Haitian President Andre Preval said the death toll could rise to 50,000. The "confirmed" numbers of dead were still in the hundreds Wednesday afternoon.

Sometimes, early predictions of death tolls are overestimated. After the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran officials estimated that 50,000 or more residents were killed. That death toll was later revised down to 26,000. At other times, they're low or close to accurate. For instance, after the Dec. 26, 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that triggered massive tsunamis, Indonesian officials released a toll of 13,000 for the island of Sumatra the day after the event, raised that figure to 26,000 on Dec. 29 and said that 96,000 were dead and 132,000 were still missing a month later. The final, official toll was 220,000.

Regardless of the precise death toll, there is a clear and pressing needs for the tens of thousands of survivors who have lost their homes and are likely to be reliant on international aid in the coming days for food, clean water, and medial care.

Aid workers in Port-au-Prince said the capital's creaky water-delivery system was badly damaged by the earthquake, and lax building codes and shoddy construction contributed to the collapse of many buildings, among them the Christopher Hotel, where the UN mission to Haiti was based. Among those still missing at mid-afternoon on Wednesday was the head of the UN operation.

Return here for frequent updates on Haiti relief efforts

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