Rain soaks Haitians, collapses shacks
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A pre-dawn rain shower soaked tens of thousands living in rudimentary shelters in Haiti's capital this morning, an alarming taste of the havoc a sustained tropical downpour could wreak on this earthquake-ravaged country. Rain collapsed cardboard shacks and soaked clothing and bedding at the Marassa 14 camp, where about 2,500 earthquake- displaced people live in a dry riverbed. People scrambled to shore up leaks. Most of the estimated 1.2 million people that the U.N. says are living in temporary camps across Haiti dwell in simple structures made of bed sheets and plastic sheeting. Officials warn that more permanent shelter must be had before the rainy season begins within weeks. Downtown, more than 1,000 people demanded shelter in separate protests outside the collapsed National Palace and at the police post where government ministers have temporary offices. "They're not giving us tents. It's raining, and now we are in trouble," said one protester, Saintel Petit. The European Union, criticized for its slow response to the earthquake, said today it will mount a military operation to bring shelter before the start of the rainy season, usually in April. Officials did not immediately give details on what kind of shelter the EU plans to provide. Wildly conflicting death tolls from Haitian officials, meanwhile, have raised suspicions that no one really knows how many people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake. The Communi cat i ons Ministry triggered confusion Wednesday by releasing a statement saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government following the quake. It later withdrew the statement, saying there was an error and blaming a typo. The official estimated death toll, according to the Interior Ministry, is between 217,000 and 230,000. The higher figure equals the number of people killed in the tsunami that devastated a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean following a magnitude- 9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. A third of Haiti's 9 million people were crowded into the chaotic capital when the quake struck a few minutes before 5 p.m. About 250,000 houses and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, according to government estimates, many crushing people inside. For days, people piled bodies by the side of the road or left them half-buried under the rubble. Countless more remain under collapsed buildings, identified only by a pungent odor. No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death estimate. Many agencies that usually can help figure casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead. The Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort — foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials — quotes only the government death figures. That number has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23, to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. President Rene Preval has said 170,000 bodies were buried in mass graves.