Struggle is on to get aid to Haitians as looters roam
Published: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 2:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 2:01 p.m.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Hundreds of U.S. troops touched down in quake- shattered Port-au-Prince overnight and were soon handing out food and water to stricken survivors, as relief groups struggled Friday to deliver aid and fears spread of unrest in Haiti's fourth day of desperation.
Looters roamed downtown streets, small bands of young men and boys with machetes.
"They are scavenging everything. What can you do?" said Michel Legros, 53, as he waited for help to search for seven relatives buried in his collapsed house. A Russian search-and-rescue team said the looting and general insecurity were forcing them to suspend their efforts after nightfall.
"The situation in the city is very difficult and tense," said team chief Salavat Mingaliyev, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
Hard-pressed government workers, meanwhile, were burying thousands of bodies in mass graves. The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday's cataclysmic earthquake. Up to 50 percent of the buildings in Haiti's capital and other hard-hit areas were damaged or destroyed, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York.
More and more, the focus fell on the daunting challenge of getting aid to survivors. United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the capital said people's anger was rising that aid hasn't been distributed quickly, and warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.
On Friday morning, no sign was seen of foreign assistance entering the downtown area, other than a U.S. Navy helicopter flying overhead. Poor and blocked roads, airport congestion and other logistical obstacles have slowed the aid delivery.
Ordinary Haitians sensed the potential for an explosion of lawlessness. "We're worried that people will get a little uneasy," said attendant Jean Reynol, 37, explaining his gas station was ready to close immediately if violence breaks out.
"People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation," U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva. "If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat."
The quake's destruction of Port-au-Prince's main prison complicated the security situation. International Red Cross spokesman Marcal Izard said some 4,000 prisoners had escaped and were freely roaming the streets.
The U.N. World Food Program said Friday it would start handing out 6,000 tons of food aid recovered from a damaged warehouse in the city's Cite Soleil slum. Spokeswoman Emilia Casella said the WFP was preparing shipments of enough ready-to-eat meals to feed 2 million Haitians for a month. She noted that regular food stores in the city had been emptied by looters.
More than 100 paratroopers of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division arrived at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport overnight, boosting the U.S. military presence to several hundred on the ground here, and others have arrived off Port-au-Prince harbor on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.
Within hours, an 82nd Airborne rapid response unit was handing out food, water and medical supplies outside the airport, a helicopter lifted off with water to distribute, and a reconnaissance chopper went searching for drop zones around the capital to move out more aid.
"We have much more support on the way. Our priority is getting relief out to the needy people," Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
The command said other paratroopers and Marines would raise the U.S. presence to 8,000 troops in the coming days. Their efforts will include providing security, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Helicopters have been ferrying water and other relief supplies off the Vinson into the airport, U.S. military officials said. The British-based Oxfam aid group said it had managed to get some 2,000- and 5,000-liter water tankers into the city's streets, but the greater need was clear in the heart of Port-au-Prince.
In a tent city with thousands of displaced people, nurse Marimartha Syrel said she had been there since Tuesday night with no water. "We can't cook food. We can't do anything," she said.
At a window of a water treatment facility, Mary Verna was selling the last few bottles of treated water. The plant won't produce more until electricity is restored to the blacked-out city, she said.
"It's desperate because the water system in Port au Prince beforehand was not very good," said Paul Sherlock, Oxfam's senior humanitarian representative. "When an earthquake happens, any system — no matter how good — is going to have problems: pipes are broken and damaged. We don't know how bad that situation is right now."
At the airport, some 160 frantic and exhausted U.S. citizens, along with others stranded there for days, begged for evacuation. "We've had people crying, people passing out," said Muriel Sinai, 38, a nurse from Orlando, Fla. American soldiers were sorting out the Americans, but it wasn't clear whether and when they might be flown out.
Hundreds of bodies were stacked outside the city morgue, and limbs of the dead protruded from the rubble of crushed schools and homes. A few workers were able to free people who had been trapped under the rubble for days.
French firefighters on Thursday pulled three people alive from the ruins of the Montana Hotel after being trapped for more than 50 hours. They were senior staff members of the Maryland-based aid organization IMA World Health, identified by the organization's Douglas Bright as IMA's president, Richard Santos, a vice president, Sarla Chand, and the group's Haiti program manager, Ann Varghese.
They had just finished a meeting at the hotel when the quake struck. But five Haitian employees of the organization were still missing, Bright said.
Driving a yellow backhoe through downtown Friday morning, Norde Pierre Rico said his government crew had cleared one house and found four people alive. But "there's no plan, no dispatch plan," he said, another sign of a lack of coordination and leadership in the rescue and aid efforts in these early days of the crisis.
Experts say people trapped by Tuesday's quake would begin to succumb if they go without water for three or four days.
Haitian President Rene Preval told The Miami Herald that over a 20-hour period, government crews had removed 7,000 corpses from the streets and morgues and buried them in mass graves.
For the long-suffering people of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, shock was giving way to despair.
"We need food. The people are suffering. My neighbors and friends are suffering," said Sylvain Angerlotte, 22. "We don't have money. We don't have nothing to eat. We need pure water."
From Europe, Asia and the Americas, more than 20 governments, the U.N. and private aid groups were sending planeloads of high-energy biscuits and other food, tons of water, tents, blankets, water-purification gear, heavy equipment for removing debris, helicopters and other transport. Hundreds of search-and-rescue, medical and other specialists also headed to Haiti.
The WFP began organizing distribution centers for food and water Thursday, said Kim Bolduc, acting chief of the large U.N. mission in Haiti. She said that "the risk of having social unrest very soon" made it important to move quickly.
Governments and government agencies have pledged about $400 million worth of aid, including $100 million from the United States.
But the global helping hand was slowed by a damaged seaport and an airport that turned away civilian aid planes for eight hours Thursday because of a lack of space and fuel.
A stream of U.S. military cargo planes landed Friday, but they had to circle for an hour before getting clearance to land because the quake destroyed the control tower and radar control, and the U.S. military was using emergency procedures.
Aid workers have been blocked by debris on inadequate roads and by survivors gathered in the open out of fear of aftershocks from the 7.0-magnitude quake and re-entering unstable buildings.
"The physical destruction is so great that physically getting from point A to B with the supplies is not an easy task," Casella, the WFP spokeswoman in Geneva, said at a news conference.
Across the sprawling, hilly city, people milled about in open areas, hopeful for help, sometimes setting up camps amid piles of salvaged goods, including food scavenged from the rubble.
Small groups could be seen burying dead by roadsides. Other dust-covered bodies were dragged down streets, toward hospitals where relatives hoped to leave them. Countless dead remained unburied. Outside one pharmacy, the body of a woman was covered by a sheet, a small bundle atop her, a tiny foot poking from its covering.
Aid worker Fevil Dubien said some people were almost fighting over the water he distributed from a truck in a northern Port-au-Prince neighborhood.
Elsewhere, about 50 Haitians yearning for food and water rushed toward two employees wearing "Food For The Poor" T-shirts as they entered the international agency's damaged building.
"We heard a commotion at the door, knocking at it, trying to get in," said project manager Liony Batista. "'What's going on? Are you giving us some food?' We said, 'Uh-oh.' You never know when people are going over the edge."
Batista said he and others tried to calm the crowd, which eventually dispersed after being told food hadn't yet arrived.
"We're not trying to run away from what we do," Batista said, adding that coordinating aid has been a challenge. "People looked desperate, people looked hungry, people looked lost."
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.
Comments are currently unavailable on this article