Relief effort

Up to 50,000 believed dead; aid snarled

By Jonathan M. Katz and Tamara Lush
Associated Press / January 15, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Doctors and search dogs, troops and rescue teams flew to this devastated land of dazed, dead, and dying people yesterday, finding bottlenecks everywhere, beginning at a main airport short on jet fuel and ramp space and without a control tower.

The International Red Cross estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday’s cataclysmic earthquake, based on information from the Haitian Red Cross and government officials. Hard-pressed recovery teams resorted to using bulldozers to transport loads of dead.

Worries mounted, meanwhile, about food and water for the survivors. “People have been almost fighting for water,’’ aid worker Fevil Dubien said as he distributed water from a truck in a northern Port-au-Prince neighborhood.

From Virginia, France, and China, a handful of rescue teams were able to get down to work, scouring the rubble for survivors. In one successful rescue, searchers pulled a security guard alive from beneath the collapsed concrete floors of the UN peacekeeping headquarters, where many others were entombed.

Across the capital, uncounted bodies littered the streets in the 80-degree heat, and dust-caked arms and legs reached from the ruins. Outside the General Hospital morgue, hundreds of collected corpses blanketed the parking lot, as the grief-stricken searched for loved ones. Brazilian UN peacekeepers, key to the city’s security, were trying to organize mass burials.

Patience already was waning among those waiting for aid, said David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission.

“They want us to provide them with help, which is, of course, what we want to do,’’ he said. But they see UN vehicles patrolling the streets to maintain calm, and not delivering aid, and “they’re slowly getting more angry and impatient,’’ he said.

In Washington, President Obama announced “one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history,’’ starting with $100 million in aid. The US Southern Command reported that the first 100 of a planned 900 paratroopers from the 82d Airborne Division landed in Haiti from North Carolina yesterday, to be followed this weekend by more than 2,000 Marines. The American troops “will relieve pressure’’ on overworked UN elements, Wimhurst said.

Other governments, the United Nations, 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, and teams of hundreds of search-and-rescue, medical, and other specialists.

The looting of shops added to concerns. The Brazilian military warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting by the desperate population.

“There is no other way to get provisions,’’ Matt Marek, American Red Cross representative, said of the store looting. “Even if you have money, those resources are going to be exhausted in a few days.’’ Red Cross officials have estimated one-third of Haiti’s 9 million people are in need of aid.

The quake brought down Port-au-Prince’s gleaming white National Palace and other government buildings, disabling much of the national leadership. That vacuum was evident yesterday. No senior Haitian government officials were visible at the airport, although President Leonel Fernandez of the neighboring Dominican Republic said after meeting with President Rene Preval that the Haitian leader was in control of the situation, working from the airport.

“Donations are coming into the airport here, but there is not yet a system to get it in,’’ said Kate Conradt, a spokeswoman for the Save the Children aid group.

Edmond Mulet, a former UN peacekeeping chief in Haiti, arrived yesterday from UN headquarters in New York to lead the relief effort, along with a UN disaster coordination team. The first US military units to arrive took on a coordinating role at the airport, but P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, emphasized, “We’re not taking over Haiti.’’

Wimhurst said the Haitian police “are not visible at all,’’ no doubt because many had to deal with lost homes and family members and law-and-order needs had fallen completely to the 9,000 UN peacekeepers and international police in Haiti.

Police and UN peacekeeper trucks pushed down crowded streets, showing little sign of coordinated action.

Small groups buried corpses at roadsides. Working with bare hands and simple tools, Haitians pulled at slabs of concrete and blocks of debris to get at trapped family, friends, and neighbors.

Other dust-covered bodies were being carried down streets in wheelbarrows, toward hospitals where relatives hoped to leave them.

At the overwhelmed Central Hospital, anguished patients lay in a weedy parking lot on gurneys fashioned from wooden doors. Calls for help went unanswered. No doctors were in sight.

At least eight Port-au-Prince hospitals were severely damaged, the World Health Organization said in Geneva. At least 2,000 of the injured were reported to have been treated at hospitals next door in the Dominican Republic, including the president of the Haitian Senate, Kelly Bestien.

Elsewhere, tragedies unfolded throughout the day. In the Petionville suburb, friends held back Kettely Clerge - “I want to see her,’’ she sobbed - as neighbors with bare hands tried to dig out her 9-year-old goddaughter, Harryssa Keem Clerge, pleading for rescue from beneath their home’s rubble.

“There’s no police, there’s nobody,’’ the godmother cried. By day’s end, the girl was dead.

Of the estimated 45,000 Americans in Haiti, the US Embassy had contacted almost 1,000. One American was confirmed dead, a Foreign Service officer, Victoria DeLong.

For the long-suffering people of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, disbelief was giving way to despair.

The scope of the catastrophe left many Haitians, a fervently religious people, in tears and prayer. Reached by the Associated Press from New York, Yael Talleyrand, a 16-year-old student in Jacmel, on Haiti’s south coast, told of thousands of people made homeless by the quake and sleeping on an airfield runway, “crying, praying.’’

Earlier, she said, one woman had run through Jacmel’s streets screaming: “God, we know you can kill us! We know you’re strongest! You don’t need to show us!’’

Material from the Washington Post was used in this report.


Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti is in Haiti. (Globe File Photo) Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti is in Haiti.
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