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Chaos at Port-au-Prince airport slows Haiti emergency aid efforts

Even when the relief planes are able to land, there are not enough workers to unload them, too little warehouse space to store supplies and no clear paths to the most heavily damaged neighborhoods.

"We have plenty of trucks available, but we have no drivers," said Joe Kratochvil, a member of the Fairfax County search-and-rescue team from Rixeyville, Va. He said he had asked about the lack of drivers and was told, "They're the people we need to save."

"You've got to get the logistics pipeline going," said CARE chief operating officer Steve Hollingworth as he prepared to depart the United States for Haiti, where his relief agency has worked since 1954. "We're quickly now getting into requirements for long-term food and non-food relief -- water, temporary shelter, blankets and clothing."

The U.S. Southern Command, meanwhile, announced that Joint Task Force Haiti, its unit in the battered Caribbean nation, has received formal approval from the Haitian government to oversee the airport.

Although the airport's sole runway was intact after the 7.0 magnitude quake, the control tower was damaged, and pilots of the first flights in were left to coordinate landings with each other. Since then, U.S. military air traffic controllers have arrived, but the volume of traffic threatens to overwhelm the airport's capabilities, with crews even struggling to find staircases to access their planes.

Amid the chaos, crowding and difficulties unloading aircraft, international rescue teams were reported stuck at the airport, even as those already in Port-au-Prince raced against the clock to pull victims from the rubble during the crucial 72-hour window following the earthquake.

The capital's seaport was also heavily damaged, as were roads from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

At the airport, 23 U.S. military air traffic controllers were working out of a vacant hangar on laptops, guiding planes onto the crowded airstrip, the Associated Press reported. Planes were parked with their wingtips overlapping, while helicopters and small propeller planes sat on the grass beside the tarmac.

Overhead, two dozen planes circled for more than two hours Thursday, and many were diverted to Santo Domingo or Florida, AP said.

The airport normally handles about 25 flights a day, but by late afternoon Thursday U.S. Air Force Col. Buck Elton had counted 120 takeoffs and landings, AP said.

"There's only so much concrete," he said. "It's a constant puzzle of trying to move aircraft in and out." He said commercial aircraft bringing in relief supplies were causing holdups because they take longer to unload than military planes.

The airport tie-up only compounds the hardship of people awaiting rescue from collapsed buildings, especially those who injuries, doctors and relief officials said.

"In the first 48 hours, you have to find people who are injured and buried," Egbert Sondorp of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Bloomberg news service. "Emergency measures are helpful only for the first few days. After that, most people will be dead."

Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writers Peter Slevin in Chicago and Ed O'Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.

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