Haitians struggle to find the dead and keep survivors alive after earthquake

By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 15, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Desperate Haitians clawed at the rubble of their ruined capital for a second day Thursday, retrieving their dead and rescuing the living, as an international armada of ships and aircraft struggled to provide food, water, medicine and shelter.

Forty-eight hours after much of the impoverished Caribbean nation was devastated by an earthquake, it was mainly the people of this shattered city, working with bare hands and simple tools, who pulled at slabs of concrete and blocks of debris to get at those still trapped.

The dead and injured were pushed through the streets in wheelbarrows. At the overwhelmed central hospital, anguished patients lay in a weedy parking lot on gurneys fashioned from wooden doors. Calls for help went unanswered, and no doctors were in sight.

Even as a 90,000-ton American nuclear aircraft carrier was expected Friday, and transport planes arrived from as far away as China and Belgium, the first shipments of aid were just starting to reach the stunned nation.

There were scant signs of help from the Haitian government, itself scattered by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake Tuesday evening. The streets were filled with beleaguered residents milling about, left with no jobs, no instructions on what to do, and no place to buy food or to take the injured. Many said they felt totally alone and saw no evidence that relief was on the way, as their mournful pleas began to give way to anger.

"The government is mute," a dismayed young Haitian said while he hurried past a body left on a traffic median. "They do nothing."

Further hampering relief efforts, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily stopped all private and humanitarian flights from the United States to Haiti's clogged airports for slightly more than five hours on Thursday, allowing only military planes, at the request of the Haitian government, a U.S. official said. Nine planes from the United States were already in the air when FAA issued the order, the official said. They could not land in Haiti.

Despite the arrival of some aid and rescue teams on Thursday, Port-au-Prince remained a haunted place of destruction, with many of its pastel buildings collapsed into death traps.

A Haitian Red Cross official said the quake may have killed as many as 50,000 people.

Across the sprawling city, makeshift citizen rescue crews squirmed through openings in the debris and past bodies to search for survivors. The living cried with joy when they were extricated. The dead were stacked on streets and sidewalks, some victims covered with blankets or cardboard, or bound in winding sheets.

Many of the deceased remained in the rubble, with an arm protruding here, a leg there.

In a collapsed school, the body of a student was slumped over what appeared to be a desk -- her dark-blue jumper and pink blouse covered in white dust.

Jeanne Baptiste, who lost her husband and three of her five children in the quake, lay beneath a bed cloth strung between tree branches. Her sister mopped at a ragged wound on her stomach and tried to comfort the two surviving children.

"Somebody has to help us," Baptiste said weakly.

Among the dead, the State Department announced, was Victoria J. DeLong, a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. DeLong, who had been in Haiti less than a year, was killed when her home collapsed.

There were some victories amid the destruction.

An urban search-and-rescue team from Fairfax County pulled an Estonian security guard from the collapsed U.N. headquarters building.

The guard, identified as Tarmo Joveer, was discovered after rescuers heard scratching. Television footage showed him emerging from the rubble, pumping a fist in the air as rescuers dusted him off.

U.N. officials called it a miracle, noting that 36 other U.N. workers had been found dead, and that nearly 200 others -- including mission chief H├ędi Annabi and his chief deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa -- were still missing.

"The entire building was shaking violently," David Wimhurst, a U.N. spokesman who was in the headquarters at the time, said Thursday. "I was hanging on to furniture just to stop myself being thrown around the world, and praying that the big concrete pillar in the middle of my office would not break and bring the whole building down on me. When it subsided, the [building] . . . had collapsed."

He said he escaped out a window and down a rickety ladder.

U.S. vows aid

At the White House, President Obama pledged $100 million in aid to Haiti, to support what he called one of the largest international relief efforts in history.

Obama, flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Vice President Biden, said the rescue of Haiti's people, as well as the nation's long-term recovery, is a top U.S. priority.

The U.S. military now has a 24-hour-a-day airlift underway.

The White House said a large shipment of food will arrive Saturday. Three U.S. military helicopters were scheduled to fly in Thursday from the neighboring Dominican Republic loaded with water, medical supplies, hardware and personnel. They are prepared to return to the Dominican Republic with some of the injured.

U.S. disaster medical assistance teams, along with a disaster mortuary assessment team, were set to depart for Haiti from Atlanta on Thursday night.

And before the pause in nonmilitary air traffic, the international airport was busy with incoming planes, ferrying journalists and relief workers.

Supplies from a huge U.S. Air Force cargo and personnel plane from Travis Air Force Base in California were being unloaded a few hundred feet from an enormous Belgian air force plane.

Despite the traffic, six specialized urban search-and-rescue teams were still awaiting permission to fly to Haiti to join four other U.S. teams delayed because of the airport congestion, an American official familiar with the situation said.

Adding to the trouble is the need to prioritize the flow of communications gear, medical supplies and critical personnel, and the need to coordinate flight slots among countries, the official said.

But authorities said the airlift alone will not be enough to meet the needs of the estimated 3 million people affected by the quake.

Work is underway to set up a temporary port near Port-au-Prince. The main commercial pier, wharf and crane that offloads shipping containers collapsed and are in the water, Coast Guard officials said.

"The population of Haiti cannot be sustained without some way of getting large quantities of cargo in quickly, and with the port facilities in Port-au-Prince, that's going to be very difficult," said Capt. Peter Brown, chief of response operations for the U.S. Coast Guard 7th District, based in Miami.

"The only option will be breaking cargo down into much smaller containers and bringing them ashore by small boat," he said. "That's going to limit the ability to deliver sufficient quantities," especially of food.

'Help is arriving'

Steve Matthews of the international aid organization World Vision said Haiti needs all the help it can get.

"It's worse than I thought it would be," he said. "Most countries have some capacity to deal with emergencies; this one has no capacity to deal with emergencies."

The United States dispatched a company of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. But the Pentagon said that only 329 U.S. military personnel were on the ground Thursday.

The USS Carl Vinson, the Navy carrier -- loaded with 19 helicopters -- was scheduled to arrive Friday. And the hospital ship, USNS Comfort, was preparing to get underway.

Coast Guard cutters have begun to remove people and ferry supplies, and more are steaming toward Haiti.

As of late Thursday, the Coast Guard had flown out more than 100 Americans, including injured and nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel. Eighteen other people with severe injuries -- major lacerations, fractured skulls and other broken bones -- were taken by helicopter.

"Help is arriving," Obama said in Washington. "Much, much more help is on the way."

But he acknowledged: "None of this will seem quick enough if you have a loved one who is trapped, if you're sleeping on the streets, if you can't feed your children."

Ruane reported from Washington.

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