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Death toll soars in island flooding

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The death toll from devastating floods and landslides in Haiti and the Dominican Republic rose to at least 1,950 yesterday with the discovery of more than 1,000 bodies in a Haitian town.

The bodies were found in Mapou, a rural southeastern Haitian town where communications are poor, said Margareth Martin, the head of the civil protection office for Haiti's southeast region.

Rescue workers dug through mud and debris for bodies three days after torrential rains sent rivers of mud and swirling waters through Hispaniola, the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Haiti's death toll stood at 1,660, including 1,000 in Mapou, 500 elsewhere in Haiti's southeast region, 158 in the riverside town of Fond Verettes, and two in the south, at Port-a-Piment.

Authorities in neighboring Dominican Republic said they had recovered 300 bodies, mostly from Jimani, where a river overflowed its banks before dawn and swept homes away as people slept.

In Haiti, troops from a US-led peacekeeping force flew helicopter loads of bottled water, fruit, and bread to the town of Fond Verettes, where the storm washed out the winding mountainside road from Port-au-Prince and cut off ground transportation to the town of 40,000.

The floodwaters flattened fields of crops and ripped apart crude shacks fashioned from sticks and sheets of iron. Residents pulled furniture and other belongings from the streets, where they had been swept by the flood, and assembled mud-caked possessions in stacks along the sides of the roads.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. Four out of five people live in poverty and only a quarter of Haitians have access to safe drinking water.

The peacekeeping force, numbering about 3,500 foreign troops, was sent to Haiti to try to restore order after an armed revolt forced out former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February.

In the Dominican Republic, President Hipolito Mejia declared a day of national mourning for today.

In the devastated town of Jimani, bodies were taken from the mud and from Lago Enriquillo, a lake where they had been swept by the raging waters. Corpses were found crushed against walls, clinging to tree trunks, and buried in the mud.

Dogs trained to sniff out bodies were sent to join the recovery effort. Relief workers wore surgical masks against the stench of decomposing flesh and hauled bodies on stretchers, while rescuers hacked through the rubble of stick shacks with hatchets searching for corpses.

Many victims were buried in mass common graves. Authorities worried about diseases breaking out if bodies were left unburied.

"I can't find them. I didn't know they were burying them. They should let me find them first," Leonardo Novas, who lost five family members, told the Associated Press.

Survivors painted terrifying tales of sleeping families carried away. Novas said he awoke to the screams of his infant son while water rose in his wooden house. He huddled with his wife and three children, and shouted to his brother next door to stay inside, but it was too late.

The force of the mud took all but one wall of Novas's house.

"Everything's gone. My house and five family members," said Novas, 28, who watched as his brother and the brother's family were carried away in a crushing torrent of mud.

Survivors in Jimani said the flood waters reached 15 feet high.

Police officer Juan de la Cruz Mota Dotel said he lost two of his children and his wife in the disaster, along with 22 other members of his extended family. A third child, a 3-year-old daughter, survived, clinging onto a gravestone in a cemetery.

Several hundred people were also still missing.

The Dominican Republic, a country of 8.5 million people, is more prosperous than its neighbor but still has areas of deep poverty.

The European Union was preparing a package worth $2.43 million for flood victims, the European Commission said in Brussels. The United States announced it was giving $50,000 dollars to help the relief effort and was sending two disaster experts to evaluate the damage.

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