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HAITI UPDATE: Struggle to aid Haitians as fears of unrest rise

Posted: January 15, 2010 12:00 p.m.
Updated: January 15, 2010 4:45 p.m.

Loucene Bichotte, 6, is fed by his mother while recovering from a head wound caused by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Friday, Jan. 15, 2010. About 100 people are being treated outside the home of Dr. Claude Surena following the powerful earthquake that struck Haiti on Tuesday.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Pushed to the far edge of desperation, earthquake-ravaged Haitians dumped decaying bodies into mass graves and begged for water and food Friday amid fear that time is running out to avoid chaos and to rescue anyone still alive in the wreckage.

The U.S. military brought some relief, taking control of the airport, helping coordinate flights bringing in aid and evacuating foreigners and the injured. Medical teams, meanwhile, set up makeshift hospitals, workers started to clear the streets of corpses and water was being distributed in pockets of the city.

But the task was enormous.

Aid workers and authorities warned that unless they can quickly get aid to the people, Port-au-Prince will degenerate into lawlessness.

There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street. Survivors also fought each other for food pulled from the debris.

"I'm getting the sense that if the situation doesn't get sorted (out) real soon, it will devolve into chaos," said Steve Matthews, a veteran relief worker with the Christian aid organization World Vision.

Time also was running out to rescue anyone who may still be trapped alive in the many buildings in Port-au-Prince that collapsed in Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 quake.

"Beyond three or four days without water, they'll be pretty ill," said Dr. Michael VanRooyen of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston. "Around three days would be where you would see people start to succumb."

An Australian TV crew pulled a healthy 16-month-old girl from the wreckage of her house Friday - about 68 hours after the earthquake struck. In a collapsed house, neighbors and reporters heard a cry and found an air pocket: part of the top floor had been held up by a cabinet.

"I could see a dead body that was there, sort of on top of the cabinet; I could hear the baby on the left side of the body screaming," said David Celestino of the Dominican Republic, who had been working with the TV crew.

Although her parents were dead, Winnie Tilin survived with only scratches and soon was in the arms of her uncle, whose pregnant wife also was killed.

"I have to consider her like my baby because mine is passed," Frantz Tilin told The Associated Press.

As temperatures rose into the high 80s (upper 20s Celsius), the sickly smell of the dead lingered over Port-au-Prince, where countless bodies remained unclaimed in the streets. Hundreds of bloated corpses were stacked outside the city morgue, and limbs of the dead protruded from crushed schools and homes.

At a cemetery outside the city, trucks dumped bodies by the dozens into a mass grave. Elsewhere, people pulled a box filled with bodies along a road, then used a mechanical front-loader to lift the box and tip it into a large metal trash bin. South of the capital, workers burned more than 2,000 bodies in a trash dump.

The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed. A third of Haiti's 9 million people may be in need of aid. As many as half of the buildings in the capital and other hard-hit areas were damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Program was providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people "several times a day."

"Obviously, that is only a drop in the bucket in the face of the massive need, but the agency will be scaling up to feed approximately 1 million people within 15 days and 2 million people within a month," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would go to Haiti on Saturday to to inspect the damage and meet with President Rene Preval and other officials. Clinton, who will travel with USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, said she wants to convey "our long-term, unwavering support, solidarity and sympathies."

"There are going to be many difficult days ahead," said President Barack Obama, speaking for the fourth time on the disaster in three days.

The effort to get aid to the victims has been stymied by blocked roads, congestion at the airport, limited equipment and other obstacles. U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the capital said popular anger was rising, warning aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.

"People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation - if they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat," U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva.

Tom Osbeck, an Indiana missionary whose Protestant-run Jesus in Haiti Ministry operates a school north of Port-au-Prince, said nerves were becoming increasingly frayed.

"Even distributing food or water is very dangerous. People are desperate and will fight to death for a cup of water," Osbeck said.

Tempers flared at one of the capital's functioning gas stations as drivers tried to jockey their dusty cars into line. An armed guard brandishing a shotgun intervened to keep motorists from coming to blows.

Grocery stores were looted clean soon after the quake, according to Emilia Casella of the U.N. World Food Program. She said the WFP would start handing out 6,000 tons of food aid recovered from a damaged warehouse in the city's Cite Soleil slum and was preparing shipments of enough ready-to-eat meals to feed 2 million Haitians for a month.

Asked about the concern of frustration spilling into violence, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said his peacekeepers, working with Haitian police, "are now taking charge of law and order in the city."

"I suspect there will be some frustrations felt by the general population," he added. "We are very much concerned about that kind of possibility and are taking all possible precautionary measures. Until now, I think we have so far not seen major problems."

The U.S. military has several hundred personnel on the ground, including more than 100 troops from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. Hundreds of sailors, meanwhile, pulled into 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 from two cargo pallets 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. Soldiers said they expected more supplies later in the day.

At the airport, foreigners waved their passports to guards as they scrambled to escape the chaos by boarding the departing flights.

"We've had people crying, people passing out," said Muriel Sinai, 38, a nurse from Orlando, Fla.

Some 250 Americans were flown to New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base on three military planes. U.S. forces in control of the airport initially blocked French and Canadians from boarding planes, even though a French military aircraft stood by. They lifted their cordon after protests from French and Canadian officials.

The State Department said the U.S. death toll was six and predicted it will rise.

The Cuban government said Friday it had allowed U.S. airplanes to fly through its airspace as it evacuated wounded from Haiti, a move which shaves 90 minutes off flights to Miami.

With hospitals devastated, more than 3,000 injured have been treated in the Dominican Republic, including Haitian Senate President Kelly Bastien. A border hospital in Jimani is overflowing, while a trauma center in Santo Domingo requested blood donations to keep up with demand.

In Port-au-Prince, some 100 people have died while waiting for treatment at the offices of Doctors Without Borders, mission director Stefano Zannini said by phone. Open fractures are the most common injury, he said.

"I can see thousands of them walking in the streets, lost, asking for help, asking for everything," he said.

There was good news too: surgeons performed a complicated cesarean birth, Zannini said. "I am very proud to share with you that we were able to save both the lives of the baby and the mother."

An El Al Boeing 777 landed Friday with 250 Israeli medical officers and nurses ready to set up a military field hospital. A reconnaissance team set out to find a site for the 90-bed facility, which will have a full surgical unit and the capacity to treat 100 patients at a time.

In front of the collapsed National Palace, thousands of homeless in makeshift camps pleaded for help. Marimartha Syrel, a nurse, said nobody had provided even water since Tuesday. "We can't cook food. We can't do anything." The sidewalks were littered with excrement left on paper plates.

"They are very hungry," said Rivia Alce, a 21-year-old street vendor selling gum, cigarettes and rum. If no help comes, she said, "we will die."

Nearby, a woman with a bowl of water on the sidewalk bathed a naked girl without soap. Then she washed an elderly woman, naked but for a sagging pair of white panties.

A block away, a dozen bodies lay bloated and uncovered on the sidewalk - one of them with arms reaching out, as if begging for release.

Rubble spilling over from collapsed buildings blocked downtown traffic to all but pedestrians. People covered their faces with scarves to shield themselves from dust and the stench of decay. Small bands of young men and boys carrying machetes roamed the streets.

"They are scavenging everything. What can you do?" said 53-year-old Michel Legros, who was waiting for heavy equipment to excavate his house, where he added that seven relatives were buried. "I know some of them died."

___

Associated Press writers contributing to this story included Jonathan M. Katz, Paul Haven, Tamara Lush and Jennifer Kay in Port-au-Prince; Ramon Almanzar in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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UPDATE 2:30 p.m.

By Alfred de Montesquiou & Mike Melia
Associated Press Writers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Hundreds of U.S. troops touched down in earthquake-shattered Port-au-Prince overnight and were soon handing out food and water to stricken survivors, as relief groups struggled to deliver aid Friday and fears spread of unrest in Haiti's fourth day of desperation.

Pockets of looting flared across the capital. Small bands of young men and teenagers with machetes roaming downtown streets helped themselves to whatever they could find in wrecked homes.

"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 general insecurity was 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 the 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.

President Barack Obama promised an expansive U.S. effort to help Haiti survive its disaster, not just to save lives now but also as part of a longer-term effort to help rebuild the country.

"The scale of the devastation is extraordinary, as I think all of us are seeing on television, and the losses are heartbreaking," Obama said, adding he would meet Saturday with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a drive to get the American people more broadly involved in the recovery effort.

The U.N. World Food Program said 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 from two cargo pallets 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. Soldiers said they expected more supplies to arrive from the U.S. later in the day.

"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 a 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, scores of 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. U.S. soldiers were sorting out the Americans, but it wasn't clear whether and when they might be flown out.

The U.S. force asserted control over the airport, allowing 200 Americans to be evacuated while blocking similar efforts by French and Canadian officials to get their citizens out, even though a French military plane stood by. Those officials bitterly protested the move. After two hours, the U.S. soldiers lifted their cordon and allowed others through.

Earlier, three U.S. military planes flew more than 250 Americans from Haiti to New Jersey's McGuire Air Force Base.

As temperatures rose into the 80s (upper 20s Celsius) in Port-au-Prince, a stench of death lingered over Port-au-Prince, where countless bodies remained unclaimed in the streets. Hundreds of corpses 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 in 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."

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