Persistent cries for help, prayers ring from capital

Anger mounts as aid is slow to reach many

The main cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince was destroyed, but some Haitians yesterday attended Sunday Mass outside of the structure. The main cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince was destroyed, but some Haitians yesterday attended Sunday Mass outside of the structure. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Michelle Faul and Jennifer Kay
Associated Press / January 18, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Prayers of thanks and cries for help rose from Haiti’s massed homeless yesterday, the sixth day of an epic humanitarian crisis that was straining the world’s ability to respond and igniting flare-ups of violence amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

Haitian police struggled to scatter hundreds of stone-throwing looters in the city’s Vieux Marche, or Old Market. Elsewhere downtown, amid the smoke from bonfires burning uncollected bodies, gunfire rang out, and machete-wielding young men roamed the streets, their faces hidden by bandanas.

A leading aid group complained of skewed priorities and a supply bottleneck at the US-controlled airport. The general in charge said the US military was “working aggressively’’ to speed up deliveries.

Beside the ruins of the Port-Au-Prince cathedral, where the sun streamed through the shattered stained glass, a priest told his flock at their first Sunday Mass since the earthquake struck, “We are in the hands of God now.’’

But anger mounted that other helping hands were slow in getting food and water to millions in need.

“The government is a joke. The UN is a joke,’’ Jacqueline Thermiti, 71, said as she lay in the dust with dozens of dying elderly outside their destroyed nursing home. “We’re a kilometer from the airport, and we’re going to die of hunger.’’

Water was delivered to more people around the capital, where an estimated 300,000 displaced were living outdoors. But food and medicine were still scarce.

The crippled city choked on the stench of death and shook with yet another aftershock yesterday. On the streets, people were still dying, people were on their knees praying for help, pregnant women were giving birth on the pavement, and the injured were showing up in wheelbarrows and on people’s backs at hurriedly erected field hospitals.

Authorities warned that looting and violence could spread. At the Vieux Marche, police tried to disperse looters by driving trucks through the crowds, as hundreds scrambled over partly destroyed shops grabbing anything they could.

Police used tear gas to scatter looters at street markets near the collapsed presidential palace. At the Cite Soleil slum, moments after police drove by, a reporter spotted a gunman stealing a bag of rice from a motorcycle rider.

“This is one of the most serious crises in decades,’’ United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said as he flew into the Haitian capital. “The damage, destruction, and loss of life are just overwhelming.’’

A reliable death toll may be weeks away, but the Pan American Health Organization estimates 50,000 to 100,000 died in the 7.0-magnitude tremor, and Haitian officials believe the number is higher. Work went on, perhaps in its desperate final hours, to find survivors buried in the vast rubble of Port-au-Prince.

At the UN headquarters destroyed in the quake, rescuers lifted a Danish staff member alive from the ruins, just 15 minutes after Ban visited the site, where UN mission chief Hedi Annai and at least 39 other staff members were killed. Hundreds of peacekeepers and other UN staff remain missing.

At a collapsed Caribbean Supermarket where search teams from Florida and New York City worked overnight, a police officer reported that three people had been pulled out alive around 6 a.m.

More than 1,700 rescue workers had saved more than 60 lives since the quake, UN officials said.

Celebrating Mass outside the cathedral, now a shell of rubble, the Rev. Eric Toussaint preached of thanksgiving to a small congregation of old women and other haggard survivors assembled under the open sky.

“Why give thanks to God? Because we are here,’’ Toussaint said. “What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now.’’

Mondesir Raymone, a 27-year-old single mother of two, was grateful. “We have survived by the grace of God,’’ she said.

But others were angry.

“It’s a catastrophe, and it is God who has put this upon us,’’ said Jean-Andre Noel, 39, a computer technician. “Those who live in Haiti need everything. We need food, we need drink, we need medicine. We need help.’’

The World Food Program was “pretty well on target to reach more than 60,000 people today,’’ up from 40,000 the previous day, WFP spokesman David Orr said. But UN officials said they must raise that to 2 million within a month.

The US aid chief, Rajiv Shah, told “Fox News Sunday’’ that he believed the US distributed 130,000 “meals ready to eat’’ on Saturday, but that the need was much larger.

In a further sign of the delays, the aid group CARE had yet to set a plan for distributing 38 tons of high-energy biscuits in outlying areas of Haiti, CARE spokesman Brian Feagans said yesterday. He did not say why.

The Geneva-based aid group Doctors Without Borders put it bluntly: “There is little sign of significant aid distribution.’’ The major difficulty, it said, was the bottleneck at the airport, under US military control. It said a flight carrying its own inflatable hospital was denied landing clearance and was being trucked overland from Santo Domingo, almost 200 miles away in the Dominican Republic, delaying its arrival by 24 hours.

French, Brazilian, and other officials had earlier complained about the US-run airport’s refusal to allow their supply planes to land. A World Food Program official told The New York Times that the Americans’ priorities were out of sync, allowing too many US military flights and too few aid deliveries.

The United States has completely taken over Port-au-Prince airspace, and incoming flights have to register with Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, said Chief Master Sergeant Ty Foster, Air Force spokesman here.

The on-the-ground US commander in Haiti, Lieutenant General Ken Keen, acknowledged the bottleneck.

“We’re working aggressively to open up other ways to get in here,’’ he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’