Aid workers contend with panic and looting a day after earthquake

By Jonathan M. Katz
Associated Press / January 14, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The tiny bodies of children lay in piles next to the ruins of their collapsed school. People with faces covered by white dust and the blood of open wounds roamed the streets. Frantic doctors wrapped heads and stitched up sliced limbs in a hotel parking lot.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, struggling to recover from the strikes of four catastrophic storms in 2008, was a picture of heartbreaking devastation yesterday after a magnitude-7 quake.

Tuesday’s quake left a landscape of collapsed buildings - hospitals, schools, churches, ramshackle homes, even the gleaming national palace - the rubble sending up a white cloud that shrouded the entire capital.

Yesterday, ambulances weaved in and out of crowds, swerving to miss the bodies lying in the street and the men on foot who lugged stretchers bearing some of the injured.

Shocked survivors wandered in a daze, some wailing the names of loved ones, praying, or calling for help. Others with injuries growing into infections sat by the roadside, waiting for doctors who were not sure to come.

Search-and-rescue helicopters buzzed over the bodies of partially clothed victims in mounds of rubble and twisted steel.

Everywhere, there was panic, urgency, pleas for help.

“Thousands of people poured out into the streets, crying, carrying bloody bodies, looking for anyone who could help them,’’ Bob Poff, divisional director of disaster services in Haiti for the Salvation Army, said in a posting on the agency’s website.

Poff wrote that he was driving down the mountain from Petionville, a hillside city, when the earthquake struck.

“Our truck was being tossed to and fro like a toy, and when it stopped, I looked out the windows to see buildings ‘pancaking’ down,’’ he wrote.

Poff said he and others piled bodies into his truck and took them down the hill, hoping to get them medical attention.

There was no reliable count, but officials feared thousands, maybe tens of thousands, had died in the quake. Some Haitian leaders suggested the figure could be higher than 100,000.

Under tents fashioned from bloody sheets, dozens lay moaning from the pain of cuts in their heads, broken bones, and crushed ribs.

Several thousand Haitian police and international peacekeepers poured into the streets yesterday to clear debris, direct traffic, and maintain security. Looters prowled through shops, then blended into crowds of refugees lugging salvaged possessions.

Haitians who could still walk were streaming out of the capital by the hundreds, many of them balancing suitcases on their heads.

In Petionville, about 200 victims, including many small children, huddled together in a theater parking lot and rigged tarps out of bedsheets to protect themselves from the scorching sun.

“The immediate need is to rescue people trapped in the rubble, then to get people food and water,’’ Sophie Perez, Haiti director of the CARE, a US-based humanitarian organization, told her colleagues in an e-mail.

“Everything is urgent.’’