Haiti's government says 230,000 people died in the Jan. 12 earthquake — as many as the 2004 Asian tsunami killed in a dozen nations — but it remains unclear who's doing the counting.
The Joint Task Force in charge of the global response to the quake — foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials — quotes only the death toll issued by Haiti's government. And that government, whose infrastructure was devastated by the quake, hasn't been able to explain its methodology.
No foreign government or independent agency has issues its own death toll. Many agencies that usually can help estimate casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead.
Haitian officials offer no convincing explanation for how they reached the official death toll — which 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 — and even some government officials express skepticism that the number is real.
"I personally think that a lot of information being given to the public by the government is estimates," said Haiti's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Roc Magloire.
Many citizens are even more cynical, accusing the government of inflating the numbers to attract foreign aid and to take the spotlight off its own lackluster response.
"Nobody knows how they came up with the death count. There's no list of names. No list of who may still be trapped. No pictures of people they buried," said shop owner Jacques Desal, 45. "No one is telling us anything. They just want the aid."
It's common in major disasters to see large discrepancies in death tolls: Governments may use lower figures to save face, or higher figures to attract foreign aid. In Haiti's case, however, where the very institutions responsible for compiling information were themselves devastated, reaching a death toll is particularly difficult.
A third of Haiti's 9 million people were crowded into the chaotic capital when the quake struck just to the southwest a few minutes before 5 p.m. Many were preparing to leave their offices or schools. Some 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.
A few days after the quake, the state-run public works department, known as the CNE, began picking up bodies from the streets and dropping them in trenches dug by earth movers in Titanyen, just north of the capital, amid rolling chalk and limestone hills that overlook the Caribbean Sea. The trenches are 6 meters (20 feet) deep and piled 6 meters (20 feet) high.
The government says it has counted 230,000 bodies during those efforts, saying that number does not include people buried in private ceremonies. But at Titanyen on Wednesday, worker Estelhomme Saint Val said nobody had counted the bodies.
"The trucks were just dropping people wherever, and then we would move in and cover them up," he said. "We buried people all along the roads and roadsides. It was impossible to do a count."
And although the government death toll jumped by thousands from Saturday to Tuesday, Saint Val said only one truck had arrived in this week, and it carried two bodies. He said workers received 15 truckloads of bodies a day just after the quake, but the numbers dropped off about 10 days ago.
Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, who announced the new death toll on Tuesday, refused to say how it was calculated.
"For the moment we count 230,000 deaths, but these figures are not definitive," she said. "It's a partial figure."
U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Geneva, who has often cited Haitian government figures, said Wednesday that she said she doesn't know how it is calculating the death toll: "We cannot confirm these figures."
Finding someone who can is difficult.
The government said the CNE had orchestrated the count. The CNE referred questions to the prime minister's office. The prime minister's chief of protocol referred questions to the prime minister's secretary-general. The prime minister's secretary-general could not be reached.
A report by the U.N. on Tuesday attributed the death toll to Haiti's Civil Protection Agency instead of the CNE. Civil Protection director Alta Jean-Baptiste referred questions to the Ministry of Interior. Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime said Wednesday that the Civil Protection toll is "217,000-and-some deaths," despite Lassegue's higher number.
"Civil Protection, before giving out the numbers, really is doing a precise count and the numbers that they give out are numbers that are proven," he said.
He would not say how that count is being done.
A death toll of 230,000 would match that of the tsunami that devastated a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean following a magnitude-9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. That disaster generated an outpouring of international aid — in part because of the number of dead.
An extremely high toll "probably elicits more public sympathy, so it might generate more visibility, more funding," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
But Byrs says inflating numbers can backfire.
"Regarding every estimate, we have to be very careful because we could lose credibility with donors, with humanitarian partners," she told The Associated Press. "If you boost the figure, it's counterproductive. It doesn't help when you try to match assistance to needs."
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