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Haiti report shines light on rush to inflate death tolls
by Staff Writers
Port-Au-Prince (AFP) June 1, 2011

An explosive report questioning the death toll from Haiti's earthquake has experts slamming "back-of-the-envelope calculations" that artificially inflate figures in times of crisis.

"The more deaths, the more visibility an earthquake will get. It's what we call the 'CNN effect,'" said David Hargitt, a data manager at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) based in Belgium.

The report -- commissioned by USAID but not yet officially released by the US State Department -- contends that between 46,000 and 85,000 people were killed when a massive 7.0 quake struck Haiti in January 2010.

Those figures are far below the Haitian government's death toll of 316,000, as well as the more commonly circulated figure of 222,570.

The world's media descended on the Caribbean nation in the wake of the disaster and the international community pledged nearly $10 billion to rebuild the impoverished country.

CRED director Debarati Guha-Sapir told AFP the high figure had come from a Haitian civil protection officer but had not been scientifically confirmed.

"We register around 400 disasters every year and do not call our sources if that is what they have reported," she said in an email.

"Short of going out and counting the bodies for ourselves, one has to take the source's word for it."

Counting bodies was not the priority in the wake of the disaster, as overwhelmed authorities struggled to clear piles of corpses and rubble, rescue trapped victims and deal with an army of homeless.

The civil protection department's figures were in part calculated by estimating how many bodies fit in a dump truck and how many trucks delivered corpses to public graves -- shocking scenes engraved on Haitian memories.

The writers of the draft report, entitled "Building Assessments and Rubble Removal in Quake-Affected Neighborhoods in Haiti," insist it should not diminish the scale of the tragedy.

"People tend to hype numbers and I don't think it serves the beneficiaries," said Hargitt.

"What? 200,000 isn't enough to reach the world's attention? We need to reach 300,000? What happens to the next disaster? Do we need to make it 500,000?"

Lead author Timothy Schwartz, hired by Washington-based LTL Strategies to conduct the report, told AFP his lower estimates are "still one hell of a lot of dead people, destroyed lives, tragedy."

"I don't see why, in the end, this changes anything," Schwartz said in an email. "The damage is the same, the needs are great. Haiti was in a state of disaster before the earthquake."

USAID mission director in Haiti, Carleene Dei, said in a statement the agency was steadfast in its support of the nation and that the draft report was meant to assess the impact of rubble removal.

"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," Dei added.

Richard Garfield, a professor of public health at Columbia University who has been working in Haiti on population research, said the initial government numbers were all "back-of-the-envelope calculations."

He accuses international aid groups of inflating death tolls to boost donor interest.

"Bigger numbers mean some greater potential fundraising ability. The mentality is if everybody else is inflating their numbers, we can't be left out," he said.

Since the quake, Garfield and researchers from the Center for Disaster Medicine at Karolinska Institute in Sweden have been using cell phone data to track the movements of the quake displaced.

Working with Digicel, Haiti's largest cell phone provider, their study identified 1.8 million phones in Port-au-Prince before the quake and used geo-positioning data to track them for more than a year afterwards.

Their data shows how many phones went dead on January 12, 2010 and may be applicable to tabulating the death toll.

Those figures have not been released yet, but in light of the new interest, Garfield says his team will consider sharing them.

Despite the general acceptance of the higher death tolls, little of Haiti has been rebuilt in the 16 months since the earthquake and the country has been struggling since October to contain a cholera outbreak.

Health authorities said Wednesday there was a resurgence of the disease in which at least 10 people have died and 1,000 been hospitalized.

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