US paratroopers, groups struggle to get aid to Haitians as fears of unrest rise

By Mike Melia, AP
Friday, January 15, 2010

Struggle to aid Haitians as fears of unrest rise

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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, buried 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.

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 logistical obstacles were many. “There are a lack of trucks, lack of fuel, blocked roads and so on,” U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said in New York.

Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary-general,said the U.N. World Food Program began delivering food Thursday and as of Friday was feeding about 8,000 people several times a day, with high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals.

“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. The U.N. would set up 15 food-distribution centers, he said.

The WFP already had food warehoused in Haiti before the quake, and would be flying in much more. Spokeswoman Emilia Casella noted the 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.

The U.S. Southern 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.

President Barack Obama promised an expansive U.S. effort to help Haiti survive its disaster and rebuild the country longer term. He said 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.

Globally, governments and agencies have pledged about $400 million in aid, including $100 million from the United States.

The most immediate concern was for water. 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.”

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.

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.

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), 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.

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.

Rescue workers were able to free people trapped in the rubble for days — seven of them, including five Americans, from the collapsed Montana Hotel.

Four Americans rescued Thursday were in good shape, but the fifth, found Friday, was flown out of Haiti. That person’s condition and identity could not be immediately determined.

Three freed Thursday were identified by their aid organization, the Maryland-based IMA World Health, as its president, Richard Santos, a vice president, Sarla Chand, and the group’s Haiti program manager, Ann Varghese. Family members in Colorado identified another rescued Thursday as mission worker Jim Gulley, 64, who they said reported he was all right.

It wasn’t known how many were still inside in hotel ruins, alive or dead. “They’re still searching for those who are surviving in this rubble. We’re still in search and rescue mode,” said Rebecca Gustafson of the U.S. Agency for International Development disaster assistance team.

Experts say people trapped by Tuesday’s quake would begin to succumb if they go without water for three or four days.

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.

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.”

Associated Press contributors to this story: Jonathan M. Katz, Tamara Lush and Jennifer Kay in Port-au-Prince; Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Danica Coto and David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Matthew Lee and Pauline Jelinek in Washington.

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