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With Haiti government crippled, bodies rot in streets

Emergency crews operating despite lack of functioning government.

Residents walk next to a dead body after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 13, 2010. With the government seriously crippled by the quake, bodies remain in the streets three days after the quake. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — The corpses lie on sidewalks and on the edges of shattered buildings, in pits on the sides of the road and in muddy puddles in the center of the street.

In neighborhood after neighborhood across this shattered capital, the same horrific signs of death can be seen, a relentless reminder of the scale of the tragedy and the struggles of the relief efforts to alleviate it.

Three days after this impoverished Caribbean nation was hit by its fiercest earthquake in two centuries, rescue teams have yet to succeed in one of the most fundamental tasks: clearing up the dead.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of corpses are still in public view, covered only by white sheets as they decompose in the scorching sun.

In some cases, residents have taken it into their own hands to dispose of the cadavers, incinerating them with burning tires, unleashing reams of black smoke that make passersby cover their faces with scarves and T-shirts.

In another horrific incident, residents pulled corpses into a pile to block a central street as a protest at the lack of action on the cadavers.

The inability of authorities to solve this deadly health risk underlines the challenges in bringing relief to the millions hit by the disaster in this impoverished nation.

At the center of the problem is the collapse of Haitian government infrastructure from the earthquake, which destroyed the presidential palace, seven ministries and the senate building (with most of the lawmakers inside).

“The reality is that there is virtually no functioning government here right now. Foreign governments have to organize their own aid efforts without any central coordination,” said a diplomat from a foreign power here, who asked his name not be used.

The lack of government can be seen in many basic areas. Stop lights were down and traffic conductors were absent across the city, leaving a heaving gridlock of cars and trucks.

Amid this standstill, many aid vehicles were snared up in traffic, as were trucks trying to pull the corpses out.

The security situation was also fragile. As night fell on Thursday, gangs broke into shuttered stores in a central shopping area, pushing and shoving over the spoils while no police were in sight.

However, only a small minority took part in such looting, while most here were focused on trying save and tend to the living, albeit with little help from the authorities.

Groups of residents and workers spontaneously organized to try and pull survivors out of the collapsed buildings, descending on the debris with any sledge hammers, mallets and chisels they could lay their hands on.