US & World

A Race Against Time For Aid In Haiti

Local residents wander amidst the ruins of their hometown hours after the earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince January 13, 2010. More than 100,000 people were feared dead in Haiti Wednesday after a calamitous earthquake razed homes, hotels, and hospitals, leaving the capital in ruins and bodies strewn in the streets. With thousands of people missing, dazed survivors in torn clothes wandered through the rubble as more than 30 aftershocks rocked the ramshackle capital, where more than two million people live, most in the grip of poverty.
Local residents wander amidst the ruins of their hometown hours after the earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince January 13, 2010. More than 100,000 people were feared dead in Haiti Wednesday after a calamitous earthquake razed homes, hotels, and hospitals, leaving the capital in ruins and bodies strewn in the streets. With thousands of people missing, dazed survivors in torn clothes wandered through the rubble as more than 30 aftershocks rocked the ramshackle capital, where more than two million people live, most in the grip of poverty.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Even as teams of international relief workers carrying supplies rush toward the quake-shattered Caribbean island nation, there were few apparent signs deep in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince of an organized plan to bring food and water to the estimated 3 million people who need emergency assistance.

Aid was tricking in slowly to earthquake-ravaged Haiti on Thursday, but the magnitude of the disaster was overwhelming the relief efforts.

Several planeloads of medics and search-and-rescue teams have landed in the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince, and as many as several thousand U.S. troops are on their way to the Caribbean nation.

But many Haitians spent their second night in a row sleeping out in the streets. Some survivors fashioned makeshift shelter by building walls of rubble to protect them from passing cars, while others continued their efforts to dig survivors out from under collapsed buildings using sledgehammers and their bare hands.

Bodies lay everywhere in Port-au-Prince: tiny children next to schools, women in rubble-strewn streets with stunned expressions frozen on their faces, men hidden beneath plastic tarps and cotton sheets.

"People have nowhere to put them, so they wrap them in sheets and cardboards in the hope that the authorities will pick them. People have also piled bodies in front of the city's main hospitals," Cedric Perus, the humanitarian coordinator in Haiti for Oxfam, an international aid group, said in a statement from Port-au-Prince. "Bodies may stay under the rubble for a long time because it is difficult to access some sites and heavy lifting equipment is in limited supply."

There was still no reliable estimate on how many people were killed by Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 quake. On Thursday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several TV networks that she feared that tens of thousands of Haitians had died. Earlier, Haitian President Rene Preval had said the toll could be in the thousands. Leading Sen. Youri Latortue told The Associated Press the number could be 500,000, but conceded that nobody really knew.

"Let's say that it's too early to give a number," Preval told CNN on Wednesday.

Around the city, ad hoc medical centers sprung up, including one at the airport where United Nations workers, foreigners and Haitians were being frantically treated.

Hundreds of patients were lined up in cot after cot in covered hangers, NPR's Carrie Kahn reported from Port-au-Prince. One man arrived in a wheelbarrow; another made it after being trapped in rubble for 16 hours.

Doctors who arrived from Miami on Wednesday evening hustled to treat the injuries, which included broken limbs, spinal damage and internal bleeding. In the space of just a few hours, at least four people died of relatively minor injuries that doctors said would have been treated easily in a more advanced facility.

Deeper in the city, there were few apparent signs of an organized plan to bring food and water to the 3 million or so Haitians that the International Red Cross estimates need emergency assistance.

"This is much worse than a hurricane," said Jimitre Coquillon, a doctor's assistant who was working at a separate makeshift triage center set up in a hotel parking lot. "There's no water. There's nothing. Thirsty people are going to die."

The World Food Program said Thursday that damage to Haiti's port in the capital is preventing ship deliveries to quake-struck region. It said the city's airport is open but straining to handle dozens of incoming flights of supplies and rescuers.

At least eight of Port-au-Prince's hospitals have been heavily damaged. The aid group Doctors Without Borders treated the wounded at two hospitals that withstood the quake and set up tent clinics elsewhere to replace its damaged facilities. Many of the hundreds of Cuban doctors stationed in Haiti also worked to treat the injured in field hospitals.

President Obama promised an all-out rescue and humanitarian effort including military and civilian emergency teams from across the U.S. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was expected to arrive off the coast Thursday, and the Navy said the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan had been ordered to sail as soon as possible with a 2,000-member Marine unit. An advance group of more than 100 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division will leave Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Thursday to prepare for the arrival of several hundred more from the division on Friday.

"We have to be there for them in their hour of need," Obama said.

A U.S. military assessment team was the first to arrive, to assess Haiti's needs.

"We are going to do everything we can to maintain order," Clinton told CNN.

The global relief effort did pick up steam Thursday with the arrival of an Air China flight carrying search-and-rescue teams, medics, trained search dogs and aid supplies. A British flight with a government assessment team and 71 rescue specialists along with heavy equipment arrived in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The crew prepared to head to Haiti. A Los Angeles County Fire Department 72-member search team left for the Caribbean island nation late Wednesday.

The United Nations released $10 million from its emergency funds, even as U.N. forces in Haiti struggled with their own losses. The U.N. headquarters building collapsed in Port-au-Prince, and at least 16 personnel are confirmed dead, with up to 150 still missing, including mission director Hedi Annabi of Tunisia and his chief deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa.

"We'll be using whatever roads are passable to get aid to Port-au-Prince, and if possible we'll bring helicopters in," said Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the U.N. food agency in Geneva.

Aftershocks continued to rattle the city overnight, jolting people awake.

Doctors stitched up head wounds on several children at a hotel compound where many surivors gathered for the night. "It was just excruciating to hear them screaming out in pain, calling out to their parents for help," reported NPR's Kahn. "You hear moans throughout the night."

At another site, about 200 survivors, including many children, huddled in a theater parking lot using sheets to rig makeshift tents.

Police officers carried the injured in their pickup trucks. Wisnel Occilus, a 24-year-old student, was wedged between two other survivors in a truck bed headed to a police station. He was in an English class when the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. and the building collapsed.

"The professor is dead. Some of the students are dead, too," said Occilus, who suspected he had several broken bones. "Everything hurts."

Calls from victims seeking help from emergency services weren't getting through because systems that connect different phone networks were not working, according to officials from a telecommunications provider in Haiti.

Calls were being placed sometimes 15 to 20 times from the same phone, which was "painful to watch," said Jyoti Mahurkar-Thombre, Alcatel-Lucent's general manager of wireless voice.

About 3,000 police and international peacekeepers worked to clear debris, direct traffic and maintain security in the capital. But law enforcement was stretched thin even before the quake and would be ill-equipped to deal with major unrest. The U.N.'s 9,000-member peacekeeping force sent patrols across the capital's streets while securing the airport, port and main buildings.

Looting began immediately after the quake, with people seen carrying food from collapsed buildings. Inmates were reported to have escaped from the damaged main prison in Port au Prince, said Elisabeth Byrs, a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman in Geneva.

The U.S. Embassy had no confirmed reports of deaths among the estimated 40,000 to 45,000 Americans who live in Haiti, but many were struggling to find a way out of the country.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.