Relief teams arrive in Haiti, face daunting task amid rubble
Published: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:41 p.m.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The leading edge of a massive relief effort gained a toehold around Haiti's capital on Friday, with the U.S. military taking control of the airport and helicopters ferrying supplies from an aircraft carrier off the coast. But deep within its neighborhoods, survivors fended for themselves — evacuating those who could go, caring for those who couldn't, and putting to rest those who would move no more.
Hundreds of doctors, aid workers, equipment, and other assistance beginning to arrive at the airport, where U.S. officials said their goal was to land an aid flight every 20 minutes.
As materials poured in, those responsible for distributing it faced the challenge of finding ways to do so in a city with virtually no infrastructure, and a population clamoring for help.
"The biggest crisis obviously is how do you get the resources all over the place?" said David Lipin, of San Carlos, Calif., the commander of the 40-member Disaster Medical Assistance Team sent in from California.
It was one of five such teams that arrived Friday afternoon and deployed by the State Department. About 250 doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, surgeons, and even a couple of veterinarians were among those waiting to learn where they would be deployed — and how.
Even in good times Port au Prince had a crumbling infrastructure. Now, roads often are barely passable because of rubble strewn across them.
The stench of death began wafting up from beneath the mountains of broken concrete, smashed cars, and flattened ceilings.
There was little evidence of unrest, but also almost no evidence of any official Haitian involvement in the relief effort. Armed police were deployed at at least one gas station to control crowds vying for some precious fuel. Vehicles lined up about a mile to wait for fuel.
Scenes of desperation were everywhere. At one intersection, an elderly woman approached a vehicle, holding out a horribly burned right arm, its skin charred black and the hand swollen. With a bewildered look on her face, she asked where to go for help.
Elie Pierre, a pastor, loaded about 10 members of his family into a small pickup and planned to shuttle them out of the city to a place where they could find better living conditions. He planned to stay behind to find help for his 23-year-old daughter, whose leg was broken during the quake.
Pierre's home was spared, but like many Port-au-Prince residents his family had been sleeping outdoors for fear of new tremors. A strong aftershock shook the capital about 5 a.m. Friday.
Pierre shook his head when asked whether he thought help was on the way: He believed no promises right now, he said.
Emergency organizations were still waiting for doctors to arrive.
Michelle Chouinard, Haiti director for Doctors Without Borders, said the group hoped to set up medical tents and perform surgeries in coming days. For now, though, its workers could offer only the crudest help: bandages and some floor space or furniture for the seriously injured to lie on.
More than 100 members of the 82nd Airborne Division were in place, and the U.S. military contingent was expected to grow to as many as 10,000 by the weekend. The U.S. deployment includes 4,000 to 5,000 sailors on ships at sea, including the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, plus 3,000 soldiers and 2,000 Marines on the ground.
President Barack Obama spoke with Haitian President Rene Preval, pledging continued U.S. support for immediate relief and long-term rebuilding.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she would visit Haiti Saturday with USAID Director Rajiv Shah to see the relief effort up close. Clinton said she would meet with Preval and other Haitian officials and with U.S. authorities working to get aid to victims.
There were still no reliable estimates of the number of dead, but some Haitian officials have said the number could exceed 100,000. The Reuters news agency quoted Aramick Louis, the secretary of state for public safety, as saying that authorities had already buried 40,000 bodies and that 100,000 more people might be dead.
Bodies continued to pile up and Haitians buried them where they could. On the edge of the city's cemetery along a once-grand boulevard, people heaved the dead into a 20-foot mass grave, one of the makeshift burial sites suddenly popping up. It held 60 bodies so far and more were arriving every few minutes by wheelbarrow and pickups festooned with logos like "Love baby." Sanitation crews went through the streets, loading bodies into dump trucks. In a parking lot outside the city's main morgue, around 2,000 bodies lay in the sun, waiting for someone to identify them and take them away.
Franz Solomon circled the rotting mass looking for his mother. He had brought the bodies of his mother and sister two days earlier, but now realized they would end up in a mass grave unless he took them for burial. Amid the stench, he found his sister's body and wrapped her in a bag. He couldn't recognize his mother anymore.
Solomon, 30, expressed anger that he had nowhere to turn for help.
"The government can't do anything anymore," he said. "It doesn't even exist." An estimated 3 million Haitians, or about one-third of the country's population, were affected by the quake. The U.N. estimated that as many as half of the buildings in worst-hit areas of the capital were damaged or ruined.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would also travel soon to Port-au-Prince, and the U.N. said it would launch an urgent appeal later Friday for $550 million to provide food, water and shelter to victims. The organization suffered its own losses, with at least 37 U.N. personnel dead and 300 more unaccounted for, officials said.
"We are still in the search and rescue phase, and we are trying to save as many lives as possible," Ban told reporters.
Ban said the world's response was "generous and robust," but he acknowledged the logistical hurdles. "Although it is inevitably slower and more difficult than any of us would wish, we are mobilizing all resources as fast we can," he said.
The scenes of devastation prompted Haiti's deposed former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to offer return to his country to help rebuild. Speaking to reporters in South Africa, Aristide said he felt a need to try to save the lives of victims, but he refused to take questions on whether he planned to fly to Haiti without an official invitation.
"We are ready to leave today, tomorrow, at any time to join the people of Haiti, to share in their suffering, help rebuild the economy, moving from misery to poverty with dignity," Aristide said, reading a statement in an almost inaudible whisper.
Aristide, 56, was Haiti's first democratically elected leader in 1990 but was ousted in a military coup led by the army a year later. He regained power in 1994 and was re-elected as president in 2000, before being toppled again in a violent 2004 coup. Aristide took asylum in South Africa but still faces legal charges if he returned to Haiti.
Officials and analysts said the speed with which aid is delivered would be key to preventing people from turning violent in their desperation — at a moment when Haiti's government is almost nowhere to be seen.
Alex Puig, a security expert for International SOS, a Philadelphia-based risk-management company working in Haiti, said some violence was likely, despite the presence of U.S. forces. "It's going to be a tough, long road, " he said.
But aid trickled in. Water was being distributed from trucks in certain areas, a U.N. team distributed water-purification tablets and French aid workers visited tent cities to see what people needed most.
Rescuers continued clawing at the rubble with tools and bare hands — and sometimes pulled out the living. At the flattened Hotel Montana, a bellhop was plucked from an elevator early Friday by a rescue crew from Fairfax County, Va., that had worked there through the previous night.
The rescued bellhop, Mondesir Luckson drank some water, ate a bit and walked around. While trapped, he recalled, he was able to talk to other people pinned under the hotel's rubble.
Luckson said he could made out eight voices at first.
Then there were only six.
Times staff writers Susman and Mozingo reported from Port-au-Prince and Tribune Washington bureau writer Barnes from Washington.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Port-au-Prince, Robyn Dixon in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City and Tribune Washington bureau writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.
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