In earthquake-ravaged Haiti, daunting challenges hobble relief efforts

By Mary Beth Sheridan, Michael E. Ruane and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 16, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The United States and other countries rushed more emergency stocks of aid and supplies to Haiti on Friday in an intensifying effort to resuscitate the earthquake-ravaged nation from a state of collapse.

Like doctors working on a dying patient, foreign governments labored to establish a kind of life- support system that would bring Haiti back after the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck Tuesday.

With 1,000 troops on the ground, and more stores of food, water and equipment on the way, U.S. officials confronted the staggering and complex task of reviving the tortured nation, where the unemployment rate was 70 percent before this week's calamity.

The State Department said that a Navy carrier arriving here was carrying 600,000 daily rations of food, and that an additional $48 million in food assistance would be made available, enough to last several months. An estimated 100,000 containers for water are being shipped in, along with four water-purification systems, and the Pentagon said as many as 10,000 troops could be deployed.

"We're in the emergency response phase," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "In the coming days, we'll be shifting our focus to recovery. That means bringing in the basic support to . . . stabilize the population. Then comes the long-term challenge of rebuilding Haiti."

But in a country whose government has all but collapsed, whose feeble economy has been crushed and whose people have been left destitute, the challenges were daunting.

On Friday, desperate Haitians scuffled over food and water, and at night, in a capital where power was scant, wandered in the dark. The bodies of the dead clogged streets and cemeteries.

Accountant Jean Jude Lesperance, 42, said his friends had tried for two days to find him a bed, but the best they could do was a metal folding chair.

"When will this end?" he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Help me."

The Haitian Red Cross has said 50,000 people may have perished in the quake, though other estimates were higher. Five Americans -- including a State Department employee -- have been confirmed dead, but more are thought to have been killed. In a rare bit of good news, a Washington priest who had been missing since the quake, the Rev. Arsene Jasmin, was found alive.

The deputy country director of the World Food Program, Benoit Thiry, said food distribution was going "very badly" Friday.

The agency said it could distribute high-energy biscuits to only 1,700 people in teeming Port-au-Prince, a city of 2 million, on Thursday. The agency was aiming to reach more than 10,000 people Friday and double that amount Saturday.

But organizers were forced to cope with a host of problems, including difficulties communicating with delivery drivers and roads blocked by rubble. "The scale of the emergency, it is probably one of the worst we have had in WFP," Thiry said.

Much of the Haitian government was effectively moribund. Mail service from the United States to Haiti was suspended Friday, and Haiti ceded air traffic control at the Port-au-Prince airport to the U.S. military. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that she would fly to Haiti on Saturday for a firsthand look at the disaster, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon planned to arrive Sunday

'Overwhelmed by aid'

Rescue teams waited anxiously for equipment and colleagues who had not been able to land because of limited space and communications difficulties. Some planes had circled for long periods waiting to land, and there were more restrictions on nonmilitary flights.

"The airport is actually overwhelmed by aid," said Hans Van de Vens, a Dutch search-and-rescue official who was hoping to meet a Dutch team that had been denied permission to land the day before.

Officials said the situation at the airport -- named for Haitian patriot Toussaint L'Ouverture -- had improved since Thursday, when private planes would arrive unannounced and low on fuel. They had to be allowed to land because of the risk that they would crash, but other planes were waved off, said Air Force Master Sgt. Ty Foster.

"The air flow is a lot better. We have good communications now," he said.

U.S. Air Force special forces were assisting with air-traffic control, and a U.S. military AWACS plane was overhead to help manage air traffic. Other officials said the airport could handle only up to 90 landings and takeoffs a day.

About a dozen planes at a time were on the tarmac on Friday, including military jets from the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Israel. Aid teams from Russia, Colombia, the Netherlands, Britain and other countries milled around pallets with generators, rescue equipment, medication and food.

But with the small airport able to handle a limited number of planes, critical equipment was slow to arrive.

"We're frustrated, obviously. We feel we could do a lot of good," said Al Perez of the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department, who was waiting for a planeload of equipment that was delayed. The search-and-rescue team had arrived a day earlier, but with about half its equipment.

As of early Friday afternoon, 1,067 foreign search-and-rescue workers were searching for survivors with 114 dogs, said Nicholas Reader, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

'It will take days'

Getting planes into the airport was just one problem. Another was getting machines and personnel to unload them. Then there was the issue of moving supplies into the city.

"We have plenty of trucks available, but we have no drivers," said Joe Kratochvil, a member of the Fairfax County search-and-rescue team.

Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters at the airport Friday that "it's going to take a significant international effort" to help Haiti recover.

"It will take days to get help to all the particular places we need to," he said.

Keen said U.S. helicopters from the USS Carl Vinson, which had arrived offshore, were dropping water supplies to areas of Port-au-Prince on Friday.

For yet another day, there was little sign of Haitian government involvement in the relief operation. Aid officials said cabinet ministers were attending meetings with international donors to coordinate humanitarian relief.

"They're doing the best they can," said Keen, noting the deaths of senior officials' relatives and the collapse of many ministries.

Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said the U.S. government is focusing on "what does Haiti need for the next 30 days, what does Haiti need for the next six months. . . . [We're] going to be looking at how to both procure and deliver hundreds of thousands of provisions . . . that will provide that kind of basic subsistence for the people of Haiti for an extended period of time."

Mark L. Schneider of the International Crisis Group said: "This is one of the most severe disasters that any single country in the region has faced in its history, and the country is the least able to manage an adequate response."

At the White House, President Obama announced he will host former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush on Saturday for a discussion about coordinating worldwide relief efforts for Haiti.

Obama also said he had spoken by phone with Haitian President René Préval. Obama said Préval was emotional in thanking the United States. "He said that he has been extremely touched by the friendship and generosity of the American people," Obama said. "He said, 'From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the people of Haiti, thank you, thank you, thank you.' "

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