Rescue hopes dim for those trapped in Haiti quake; focus now on aiding injured, homeless

By Tamara Lush, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rescue hopes dim; focus now to help Haiti homeless

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The rubble from the epic earthquake now deathly quiet, search-and-rescue teams packed their dogs and gear Thursday as the focus shifted to keeping injured survivors alive, fending off epidemics and getting help to hundreds of homeless camps.

“We’re so, so hungry,” said Felicie Colin, 77, lying outside the ruins of her Port-au-Prince nursing home with dozens of other elderly residents who have hardly eaten since the earthquake hit on Jan. 12.

A melee erupted at one charity’s food distribution point as people broke into the storehouse, ran off with food and fought each other over the bags.

As aftershocks still shook the city, aid workers were streaming into Haiti with water, food, drugs, latrines, clothing, trucks, construction equipment, telephones and tons of other relief supplies. The international Red Cross called it the greatest deployment of emergency responders in its 91-year history.

But the built-in bottlenecks of this desperately poor, underdeveloped nation and the sheer scale of the catastrophe still left many of the hundreds of thousands of victims without help. The U.S. military reported a waiting list of 1,400 international relief flights seeking to land on Port-au-Prince’s single runway, where 120 to 140 flights were arriving daily.

“They don’t see any food and water coming to them, and they are frustrated,” said Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive.

Four ships managed to dock at the capital’s earthquake-damaged port, holding out the promise of a new avenue for getting aid to the city. A Danish navy ship was seen unloading crates. But the going was slow, since only one truck at a time could maneuver on the crack-riven pier.

The picture was especially grim at emergency medical centers, where shortages of surgeons, nurses, their tools and supplies have backed up critical cases.

“A large number of those coming here are having to have amputations, since their wounds are so infected,” said Brynjulf Ystgaard, a Norwegian surgeon at a Red Cross field hospital.

Food was reaching tens of thousands, but the need was much greater. Perhaps no one was more desperate than the 80 or so residents of the damaged Municipal Nursing Home, in a slum near the shell of Port-au-Prince’s devastated cathedral. The quake killed six of the elderly, three others have since died of hunger and exhaustion, and several more were barely clinging to life.

“Nobody cares,” said Phileas Justin, 78. “Maybe they do just want us to starve to death.”

In the first eight days after the quake, they had eaten just a bit of pasta cooked in gutter water and a bowl of rice each. On Thursday, they had a small bowl of spaghetti and five bags of rice and beans, and cooking oil, were delivered.

A dirty red sheet covered the body of Jean-Marc Luis, who died late Wednesday. “He died of hunger,” said security guard Nixon Plantin. On Thursday, four days after The Associated Press first reported on the patients’ plight, workers from the British-based HelpAge International visited and said they would help.

One by one, such deaths were adding to a Haitian government-estimated toll of 200,000 dead, as reported by the European Commission. It said 250,000 people were injured and 2 million homeless in the nation of 9 million.

As U.S. troops began patrolling Port-au-Prince to boost security, sporadic looting and violence continued.

People made off with food, cell phones and anything else they could grab from damaged shops downtown. A police officer standing nearby said police were focused on protecting businesses that weren’t destroyed. “It isn’t easy, but we try to protect what we can,” said Belimaire Laneau.

A block away, a young woman lay dead on the main street, a bullet through her skull. Witnesses said she was shot by police, but officers in the vicinity denied it. Within sight of the body, men clashed with machetes over packages of baby diapers.

At a building in the Carrefour neighborhood where the multi-faith Eagle Wings Foundation of West Palm Beach, Florida, was to distribute food, quake victims from a nearby tent camp suddenly stormed the stores and made off with what the charity’s Rev. Robert Nelson said were 50 tons of rice, oil, dried beans and salt. Fights broke out as others stole food from the looters.

At least 124 people were saved by search-and-rescue teams that worked tirelessly since soon after the quake, the European Commission reported. But as hopes faded Thursday, so long after untold numbers were trapped in the debris, some of the 1,700 specialists, working in four dozen teams with 160 dogs, began demobilizing.

Joe Downey, a fire battalion chief from an 80-member New York City police and firefighter unit, said this was the worst destruction his rescue team had ever seen.

“Katrina was bad,” he said of the 2005 hurricane. “But this was a magnitude at least 100 times worse.”

Janet Kruit of the Dutch search unit Signi grew emotional as she looked back.

“I cried so much in the last days,” she said. “You can’t reach everybody and you can’t help everybody.”

On Thursday, 18 hospitals and emergency field hospitals were working in Port-au-Prince. But the burden was overwhelming: Some quake victims have waited for a week for treatment, and patients were dying of sepsis from untreated wounds, according to Dr. Greg Elder, deputy operations manager for Doctors Without Borders.

Every surgery is a major operation riddled with complications, doctors reported from the hospital of the U.S.-based Baptist Mission. “There is no such thing as a simple break or fracture. Many patients are suffering from crushed bones, which complicate the surgery,” the group said.

The Pan American Health Organization said hospitals need more orthopedic surgeons and nurses, more supplies, and better sanitation and water.

The Haitian government asked that mobile clinics be set up in all of the more than 280 sites where Port-au-Prince’s now-homeless have resettled in tents or in the open air on blankets and plastic sheets.

Doctors warned, too, of potential outbreaks of diarrhea, respiratory-tract infections and other communicable diseases among hundreds of thousands living in overcrowded camps with poor sanitation. A team of epidemiologists was on its way to assess that situation, the Pan American Health Organization said.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, which dropped anchor Wednesday outside Port-au-Prince harbor, should help significantly. It was reinforcing its crew to 800 doctors, nurses and medical technicians, increasing its hospital beds to almost 1,000, and boosting its operating rooms from six to 11 in the next few days, the Navy said.

The Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, taking over a small police port as a triage center, were helicoptering injured out to the Comfort on Thursday. “I’m hoping to get nearly 200 out today,” said Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Grabus, in charge of the landing zone where more than 30 choppers were in action.

Nervously waiting to be airlifted with her 1-year-old boy to the Comfort, Shamaelle Gelin, 22, said his fractured leg had gone untreated for a week and was badly infected. She was a “bit scared” about her first flight and shipboard experience, “but of course I’ll stay with him,” she said.

Almost $1 billion in foreign aid has been pledged to help Haiti recover from the quake, and the White House said the U.S. share has climbed to about $170 million.

The U.N. World Food Program said it has delivered at least 1 million rations to about 200,000 people, with each ration providing the equivalent of a daily three meals. In the coming days, it plans to deliver five-day rations to 100,000 people a day, it said. The U.S. military said it was resuming air drops of water and meals on parachute pallets into zones secured by U.S. troops.

On a hillside golf course overlooking Port-au-Prince, where a U.S. 82nd Airborne Division unit set up its aid base, a tent city of tens of thousands grew daily as word spread that the paratroopers were distributing food.

“They are coming from all over the city,” said bookkeeper and camp resident Augustin Evans, 30. “They are coming because they are hungry.”

But the improvised settlements under the tropical sun offered little solution for even the medium term. Fewer than half had tents or other shelters, said the specialists of the International Organization for Migration. They reported that Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers were leveling land in the suburb of Croix des Bouquets for a new, large tented camp.

Beyond the capital, closer to the quake’s epicenter to the southwest, hundreds of Marines and Canadian troops were deploying around Leogane and Jacmel.

Some of the more than 1,000 Canadian military personnel landed in Jacmel by inflatable boat from the frigate Halifax. The Red Cross reported its Colombian affiliate sent a boat across the Caribbean with enough supplies for 30,000 people in Jacmel.

More than 2,600 U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen were on the ground in Haiti, and more than 10,000 sailors and others were offshore. The number on the ground was expected to grow to 4,600 by the weekend.

In view of continuing looting and violence, American forces were expected to reinforce the long-established U.N. peacekeeping force here in escorting aid convoys. The U.N. was adding 2,000 peacekeepers to the 7,000 already in Haiti, and 1,500 more police to the 2,100-member international force.

Haiti accepted an offer from the Dominican Republic to send 150 troops to help secure the crucial main road from the Dominican border to Port-au-Prince, the United Nations announced Thursday

Associated Press writers contributing to this story included Alfred de Montesquiou, Mike Melia, Jonathan M. Katz and Kevin Maurer in Port-au-Prince; Charles J. Hanley and Martha Mendoza in Mexico City; Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Pauline Jelinek in Washington.

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