Aftershock hits Haiti; U.S. troops guard convoys in Port-au-Prince

By William Booth, Dana Hedgpeth and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 5:14 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- A powerful aftershock, the strongest since last week's devastating earthquake, jolted Haitians awake shortly before dawn Wednesday and sent thousands scurrying into the streets, as a massive international relief effort gained ground and more U.S. troops were dispatched to the ravaged Caribbean nation.

The aftershock came as the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort dropped anchor off Port-au-Prince and received its first patients from the earthquake zone via helicopter. The jolt collapsed a pier that the Navy had hoped to use to evacuate injured Haitians, officials said.

In Petit Goave, the seaside town closest to the epicenter of the latest tremor, seven buildings collapsed, the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination team reported. But there were no reports of casualties, possibly because most people were sleeping outdoors for fear that new aftershocks would cause their homes to crumble.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Pentagon ordered the deployment of an additional 2,000 Marines to Haiti, further bolstering a force intended to help provide relief and security. The troops were preparing to depart on other missions in the Middle East and Africa when they were diverted to Haiti.

The Navy said a three-vessel group including the USS Nassau amphibious assault ship left Norfolk on Monday on its original mission but was ordered instead to pick up the additional Marines in North Carolina. The Marines are due to head for Haiti as early as Thursday, joining about 11,500 other U.S. military personnel in the country or offshore, including 2,000 Marines who arrived earlier. A unit of those Marines landed Tuesday to help deliver aid.

According to the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization, at least 121 people have been pulled alive from the rubble by international search-and-rescue teams since the Jan. 12 quake, a new record for earthquake rescue efforts, and countless others have been saved by Haitians working with no equipment. But that may have been the easy part, said Jon K. Andrus, PAHO's deputy director.

"Getting food and water and other necessary supplies to the surviving population -- and medical care to injured survivors -- is proving in many ways to be more difficult than digging through damaged buildings to rescue people who were trapped in the ruins and the rubble," Andrus said. He cited the large number of survivors, the weakness of Haiti's transportation and communications systems even before the quake and the diversity of the organizations providing aid.

Shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday, many people in the area were startled awake by a 5.9-magnitude tremor -- one of the strongest aftershocks since the 7.0-magnitude quake crippled this city eight days ago.

Shrieks rose from the streets of Port-au-Prince as the quake, apparently the first of any great significance in at least four days, hit with a rolling, side-to-side motion that lasted several seconds. Less than 30 seconds later, a cascading roar could be heard across the city, presumably the collapse of another building. Another cry rose toward the sky.

U.S. military divers later went back into the water beneath the city's shaky central pier to gauge how the morning's aftershock had affected the already fractured pilings propping up this potentially vital link. As the French naval vessel Francis Garnier unloaded pallets of bottled water, military engineers watched anxiously to see whether the pier could sustain the weight.

The Comfort could be seen in the harbor but was not being brought into port. Plans were underway to use amphibious landing craft to bring supplies ashore. A Dutch ship with aid was also trying to dock to bring desperately needed relief and help uncork the bottleneck at the congested airport.

The aftershock occurred "in the zone of the original fracture" and was "not unexpected," said John Bellini, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "There are going to be more aftershocks" in the days and weeks ahead, he said. The agency initially calculated the aftershock as 6.1 magnitude but changed it to 5.9 after further analysis. It was the strongest aftershock since a 5.9 temblor was recorded seven minutes after last week's disastrous quake.

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