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

By Mary Beth Sheridan and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A01

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.

In the city's center, at the sprawling tent cities by the destroyed National Palace, residents said they had not seen a single international aid group distribute food in five days.

"I have been here every day. I heard they gave away some food but there was a riot," said Jean Marie Magarette, who was camping with her mother, sister and four children. "If you tell me they have been giving out food, I will believe you, but we have been on this spot since the day of the earthquake, and we have not seen anyone give away anything but water."

Trying to speed up the effort, President René Préval met with his Dominican counterpart and agreed to create a humanitarian corridor stretching from an airport and ship harbor in the western Dominican Republic into neighboring Haiti.

But relief remained agonizingly slow to get here. Across the capital, painted signs calling for help multiplied: "We need help," said one. "We need food, water, medical," said another.

Caring for the orphans

Officials were only beginning to cope with the challenge of caring for children separated from their parents, who in many cases died in the quake.

Nearly half of Haiti's population is younger than 18 years old. Even in better times, many of this country's youth are in desperate need of aid. In Haiti, where malnutrition is not uncommon, one in four children is reported to have a low birthweight, according to UNICEF.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Tamar Hahn, said UNICEF was seeking to set up a facility for children separated from their parents. Already, clinics around Port-au-Prince are starting to grapple with what to do with children they have treated who arrived unaccompanied by a parent.

As Hahn approached a field hospital near the airport Monday, she was met by Karen Schneider, a pediatric emergency doctor from Johns Hopkins University.

"Did you find us parents for our kids?" Schneider demanded.

Five unaccompanied children had been brought by rescuers to the clinic, run by the University of Miami-based charity Project Medishare. One, an 8-year-old boy named Jonas, curled up in a ball on the ground and cried for his parents for two days, Schneider said.

"We realized he must have seen the bodies," she said.

On another cot was a 2-year-old girl in a diaper, covered with bloody scratches.

"Orphan Baby Girl," read the sign at the end of the cot.

No one knew who had brought in the little girl, who had the bowed arms and legs of a person with cerebral palsy. She whimpered softly.

"We can tell she's never walked. She's completely helpless," Hahn said.

On another cot lay a 9-year-old, Sandi St. Cyr, who said she was on the school bus coming home when the quake occurred. Her bus tipped over, and a man brought her to the hospital for treatment of a sprain in her leg, she said.

"I don't know if my mom is alive," she said. "I haven't seen her."

Staff writers Colum Lynch at the United Nations and Michael E. Ruane and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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