By Mary Beth Sheridan and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A13
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Food and water trickled to the stricken people of Haiti on Saturday, as a global aid operation struggled with frictions and confusion over who was in charge to bring relief to this crumbled, earthquake-ravaged city.
Four days after the 7.0-magnitude quake brought much of Port-au-Prince down on its residents Tuesday, a few signs of national survival flickered, even as some Haitians began an exodus out of the devastated capital and into the countryside.
But there were growing tensions over which country's planes were allowed to land here first, with each nation insisting its aid flight was a priority, according to an official involved in the relief operation.
The French government became so annoyed when a plane with an emergency field hospital was turned back Friday that foreign minister Bernard Kouchner lodged a protest with the State Department, according to the French ambassador to Haiti, Didier Le Bret.
Le Bret said that the Port-au-Prince airport has become "not an airport for the international community. It is an annex of Washington."
"We were told it was an extreme emergency, there was a need for a field hospital," the ambassador said. "We might be able to make a difference and save lives."
At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew in for a visit with Haitian President Rene Preval, as the Haitian government worked to maintain a presence amid the ruins of Port-au-Prince.
The nearly collapsed Haitian government is at least nominally in charge of the relief effort, even though it has ceded air traffic control at the airport to the U.S. military.
With their offices heavily damaged, the president and his cabinet are now working out of a cramped, low-slung Haitian judicial police headquarters near the airport. International aid workers consider the building so fragile -- it has small cracks from the earthquake -- that they hold meetings with the officials on plastic chairs on the patio outside.
Adding to the confusion, the top two leaders of the U.N. mission in Haiti, who normally would coordinate an aid response, are presumed dead. They disappeared after the quake destroyed the building in which they were meeting.
Clinton, while en route to Haiti, took note of the layers of authority in Haiti, which include the Brazilian-led U.N. security force.
"We are working to back them up, but not to supplant them," she said. "They have been there for years."
Clinton said the Haitian government has given the United States and others some leeway to meet emergency needs. The Haitian "government says the highest priority is to save lives," she said.
Haiti's government has reportedly recovered 20,000 bodies from the rubble. Estimates are that the death toll could reach 50,000 to 100,000.
Despite the friction at the airport, conditions on the ground there Saturday seemed to be improving.
U.S. soldiers had taken over security at the entrance. What had been a mob of screaming Haitians pressing against the doors of the facility, hoping to catch flights abroad, was now an orderly line in roped-off rows.
Large pallets piled chest-high with orange juice, bottled water, canned chickpeas, military-style prepared meals, diapers, water, medicine and blankets appeared along the runway. Gradually, they were loaded on helicopters and the limited supply of trucks. A giant plane carrying USAID prepared meals sat on the runway.
SH-60 Seahawk helicopters from the USS Carl Vinson clattered over the city Saturday, full of cases of bottled water bound for isolated neighborhoods. Despite crowds mobbing some landing zones, Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. military's Joint Task Force assisting Haiti, said helicopter crews were "finding good clean sites to land."
On Saturday, the helicopters were picking up pallets of water from other organizations at the airport and dropping them around the city. "We're grabbing them, no matter where they come from," Kirby said.
But there was rising frustration -- and scattered looting -- among the desperate Haitian population. On Friday, the World Food Program had to suspend distribution of high-energy biscuits near the destroyed national palace when a crowd revolted, complaining that they were not getting better food.
"We're hungry. We're hungry," a group of boys on the side of the road implored a passing journalist on Saturday.
Much of the population of the city continues to sleep outside, with parks, streets, car lots and other sites turned into open-air dormitories. But other groups of people were seen trekking out of what one resident described as the "hell" of Port-au-Prince to friends, relatives and security in the countryside.
In Washington, meanwhile, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pledged to lead a long-term fundraising effort on behalf of Haitian relief as they stood with President Obama in the White House Rose Garden Saturday morning.
And before she left here Saturday evening, after her meeting with Preval, Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Haitian people:
"We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead. You have been severely tested. But I believe that Haiti can come back even stronger and better in the future."
Ruane reported from Washington. Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael Shear contributed to this report.