U.N.: Haiti government calls off search and rescue phase, humanitarian efforts being scaled up

By Mike Melia, AP
Saturday, January 23, 2010

UN: Haiti government calls off search and rescue

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti’s government has declared the search and rescue phase for survivors of the earthquake over, the United Nations announced Saturday, saying there is little hope of finding more people alive 11 days after much of the capital was reduced to rubble.

The statement from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came a day after an Israeli team reported pulling a man out of the debris of a two-story home and relatives said an elderly woman had been rescued. Experts say the chance of saving trapped people begins diminishing after 72 hours, but one mother still missing her children said it’s too soon to give up.

“Maybe there’s a chance they’re still alive,” said Nicole Abraham, 33, wiping away tears as she spoke of hearing the cries of her children — ages 4, 6 and 15 — for the first two days after the Jan. 12 quake.

Meanwhile Saturday, mourners gathered near the ruins of the shattered cathedral to pay final respects to the capital’s archbishop and a vicar in a somber ceremony that doubled as a symbolic funeral for all the dead.

“I came here to pay my respects to all the dead from the earthquake, and to see them have a funeral,” said Esther Belizaire, 51, whose cousin is among the dead.

The 7.0-magnitude quake killed an estimated 200,000 people, according to Haitian government figures cited by the European Commission. The U.N. said Saturday the government had preliminarily confirmed 111,481 bodies, but that figure does not account for corpses buried by relatives.

Countless dead remain buried in thousands of collapsed and toppled buildings in Port-au-Prince, while as many as 200,000 have fled the city of 2 million, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported.

With the local government essentially incapacitated, the U.N. has coordinated rescue efforts alongside the U.S. and teams from around the world. Spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the Friday afternoon decision does not mean rescue teams still searching for survivors would be stopped from carrying out whatever work they felt necessary.

“It doesn’t mean the government will order them to stop. In case there is the slightest sign of life, they will act,” Byrs told The Associated Press. She added, however, that “except for miracles, hope is unfortunately fading.”

All told, some 132 people were pulled alive from beneath collapsed buildings by international search and rescue teams since the Jan. 12 disaster, she said. Some 49 teams — down from 67 — were still in Haiti as of Saturday, the U.N. said.

Col. Gili Shenhar, a senior officer on the Israeli Defense Forces team in Haiti, said team members were still investigating potential rescue sites in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. However, he said it is unlikely more people will be found alive under the rubble and described being called to scenes by relatives who believe, usually incorrectly, they hear voices from the debris.

“Maybe there is one person somewhere, but the problem is how to find them,” Shenhar said. A day earlier, the team reported saving a 21-year-old man who told The Associated Press he drank his own urine to survive.

With the rainy season on the way, U.N. relief workers are concerned that many Haitians are still homeless and Byrs said the focus now will be squarely on providing shelter and medical treatment. About 609,000 people are homeless in the capital’s metropolitan area, and the United Nations estimates that up to 1 million could leave Haiti’s destroyed cities for rural areas already struggling with extreme poverty.

On Saturday morning, more than 1,000 people, many weeping and clutching handkerchiefs, gathered in a small park for the funerals of Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, and the vicar Charles Benoit. Classical music wafted over their two closed white caskets covered with flowers.

“This is for everyone,” Cleopas Auza said of the ceremony before it began.

Nepthalie Miot, a niece of the archbishop, choked back tears as she described the man who would have worked to comfort the nation after the disaster had he not been killed himself.

“He was a very compassionate person. He tried to help the poor,” she told the crowd, which included President Rene Preval, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and the Vatican’s ambassador to Haiti, Archbishop Bernadito Cleopas Auza.

Only a small number of funerals have been held since the quake, with most people buried anonymously and without ceremony in mass graves on the outskirts of the city, or burned in the streets.

“The hardest thing for us is the smell of all the dead bodies,” said Josette Elisias, 45, wearing a red handkerchief to cover her nose and mouth on Saturday as workers cleared rubble and debris from streets with brooms, rakes and wheelbarrows.

Scores of aid organizations, big and small, have stepped up deliveries of food, water, medical supplies and other aid to the homeless and other needy in seaside city.

In the U.S., celebrities and artists made impassioned pleas for charitable donations during an internationally broadcast telethon Friday night.

“The Haitian people need our help,” said actor George Clooney, who helped organize the two-hour telecast. “They need to know that they are not alone. They need to know that we still care.”

More than a dozen Latin pop stars including Shakira, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, Daddy Yankee and Juanes were to appear Saturday on a special live edition of a popular Univision variety show to raise money for the American Red Cross to help aid earthquake victims.

Frank Jordans reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers contributing to this story include Mike Melia, Jonathan M. Katz, Michelle Faul, Alfred de Montesquiou, Paul Haven and Ben Fox in Port-au-Prince; Eliane Engeler in Geneva; Morgan Lee and Charles J. Hanley in Mexico City; and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem.

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