Haiti earthquake relief is stifled by chaos in Port-au-Prince

This gallery collects all of our photos of the crisis in Haiti, starting with the most recent images and going back to the first photos that emerged after an earthquake hit the impoverished nation Jan. 12.
By Mary Beth Sheridan and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Security has emerged as one of the most formidable challenges in this earthquake-shattered capital, officials said Monday, limiting the ability of the United Nations and relief officials from elsewhere to distribute the food and medicine beginning to pile up at the airport.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday unanimously endorsed a proposal from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send 3,500 more peacekeepers to Haiti to assist in the humanitarian relief effort, but it was not clear how soon they would arrive. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, said they had about 1,700 troops in Haiti, the vanguard of an estimated 5,000 American soldiers and Marines expected to be in the country by midweek.

"Security is the key now in order for us to be able to put our feet on the ground," said Vincenzo Pugliese, a U.N. spokesman. He said a lack of security had limited peacekeepers' access "to the operational theater" -- the city beyond the U.N. compound's walls.

The acknowledgement came as the streets here filled with people scrambling to survive six days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, estimated that 200,000 people were killed in the earthquake, far more than the 50,000 estimated over the weekend. The new figure is based on information from the Haitian government, but officials cautioned that it was still only an estimate.

Although a few trucks could be spotted in the capital delivering water, residents said they were becoming increasingly hungry.

Many of those in need of food and medicine are children. A representative for UNICEF, which is racing to open a facility to hold children who have lost their families, said thousands of young Haitians could have been separated from their parents in the disaster.

Late Monday, the Obama administration said it would temporarily allow orphaned Haitian children who are eligible for adoption by U.S. citizens into the United States to receive care. "We are committed to doing everything we can to help reunite families in Haiti during this very difficult time," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

Exodus from the capital

In Port-au-Prince, scores of desperate residents clambered onto packed buses to flee the chaos. Across the city, buses left for the countryside full and returned to the capital empty. Prices for tickets doubled as the buses jostled in long lines at gas stations.

Station owners refused to open because there was no security to hold back crowds -- and to keep away gunmen who could swoop in and steal a day's sales.

In the cities of Les Cayes, Jeremie and Cap Haitien, buses were hired by civic organizations, banks and other businesses and sent to the capital to collect anyone who wanted to leave. But the need for transport far outstripped supply.

"The numbers are growing every day for people who want to leave," said Michel Pierre Andre, a bus driver who makes the run to Jeremie. His bus was crammed to the roof with passengers, but the driver had no gas. Drivers and passengers were screaming at the gas station manager to start pumping some fuel, but he refused.

"Nobody wants to come to Port-au-Prince. There is nothing here. No food to buy. No work. No nothing," Pierre Andre said.

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