Relief effort ramps up in Haiti as survivor window closes

January 17th, 2010 - 8:11 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Port-au-Prince, Jan 17 (DPA) International relief efforts were slowly finding their way into impoverished Haiti on Saturday, but distributing the aid was a massive problem as the window to find survivors of this week’s catastrophic earthquake was rapidly closing.
The United Nations had set up 15 centres in and around the capital Port-au-Prince to distribute aid to an increasingly desperate population that lacked food, water and medicine. Reports of violence around the city were increasing.

The US military, which is working to step up the capabilities of the capital’s lone airport to ferry in supplies, said it has about 4,200 personnel in and off the coast of Haiti and another 6,300 were to arrive by Monday. An aircraft carrier, destroyer and some 24 helicopters were already aiding in the relief effort.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was en route to Haiti Saturday, said the military had started using a container port at Cap Haitian in northern Haiti, which would help speed up aid distribution. The port in Port-au-Prince was rendered unusable by the earthquake.

At least 50,000 people were killed in the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation on Tuesday, according to initial UN estimates, though there was no official tally. The Haitian government said it believed more than 100,000 people died.

An aftershock Saturday afternoon - one of many since Tuesday - prompted panic in the streets of Port-au-Prince as people ran out of their homes in fear. The aftershock measured 4.5 on the Richter scale, according to US authorities.

Meanwhile the critical 72-hour window to find survivors of Tuesday’s quake was drawing to a close and there were fewer and fewer reports of rescues. Much of the international aid that Haiti so desperately needs was hampered by poor roads and an airport unable to

work to full capacity.

Yet amid the destruction, some survivors continued to be dug out. British rescue workers said they had pulled a two-year-old girl from the rubble of a nursery school that collapsed in the capital, the Development Aid Ministry said in London. Israeli rescuers reported finding a survivor under the rubble in the city centre.

“It is an enormous challenge to distribute this aid quickly and safely in a place that has suffered such destruction,” said US President Barack Obama, who met with his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in Washington to plead for more private donations.

Reports of violence rose but Haitian police and officials from the UN and US said the situation remained mostly stable. About 7,000 UN peacekeepers were the primary guarantors of security, but Haitians warned the situation could worsen if food and water supplies remained limited.

“If it continues like this, it will become violent. Soon, we will lose faith, very soon, and that will be the end for us,” said Jean Robert Casimir, who has been living on the streets with his family of 12 since Wednesday.

With so many dead, mass graves had become acceptable and widespread around Port-au-Prince. At the National Cemetery, the city’s largest, scores of bodies never made it to graves, left amid the concrete crypts, mourners and rubble of grave stones.

“This is the end of the world,” said the cemetery’s security guard, Elmond Chere.

Hillary Clinton was headed to Haiti Saturday on a military cargo flight full of relief supplies. She was to hold talks with Haitian President Rene Preval and visit the UN compound that was heavily damaged in the quake.

The UN suffered some of the worst losses in its history in the earthquake. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was to travel to Haiti Sunday.

Ban said Friday that $550 million were needed in emergency funds. The World Food Programme asked for an additional $279 million to cover food rations for 2 million Haitians for six months.

World governments have already pledged a total of 360 million, including $100 million from the US.

Some 15 areas of the Port-au-Prince are reported to have been badly affected, with at least 70 percent of buildings having been destroyed, the Red Cross said.

Aid workers reported a complete breakdown of the governmental structure, with “no functioning state.” Ministers were dead or missing, the presidential palace and ministries destroyed and the country’s bureaucracy in total disarray.

Thousands of people flocked to makeshift hospitals, including those run by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

“We’ve been working non-stop since the quake,” said Doctor Jooby Bienaime, who runs the Eliazar Germain clinic on Avenida Panamericana.

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