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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.

In Jacmel, the grassy field outside a convent shook like a children's carnival ride during the tremor, which was centered 35 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince. A thick fissure widened in the pale blue wall of the convent school, dark cement spilling out onto the walkway.

Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, head of the U.S. forces involved in the Haiti effort, said initial reports showed little visible damage from the latest quake in the city center. He said survey teams were spreading out closer to the epicenter to determine the situation there.

Although the aftershock lasted only a matter of seconds, it made Ralph Orelin, 19, revisit the terror of the earthquake all over again.

"I felt like I was going to die," said Orelin, a college student in Port-au-Prince who has been sleeping on the street since his house collapsed in last week's quake.

The latest jolt came a day after hundreds of U.S. troops surged into the epicenter of the quake area to guard convoys and food distribution sites, while thousands more stationed themselves on ships and helicopters offshore to bolster relief and recovery efforts.

The result was a visible police and military presence around the city Wednesday. Haitian police stood at intersections directing traffic, a rarity in the car-choked capital, while U.N. police and American soldiers patrolled on foot. Making their jobs more difficult was the increasing desperation among quake survivors, as manifested in a series of small riots at aid points, where Haitians fought one another for food and water.

At Canapé Vert police station, where a water company gave out bottled water, a mini-riot broke out and young men could be seen carrying cases of water while women and the elderly, too weak to fight for supplies, left empty-handed. Police waved batons to disperse the crowd.

Haitian SWAT teams are patrolling the government buildings around the National Palace to keep away looters, said Commander Simon François, who leads eight SWAT teams in Clercine, near the airport.

"The looters are looking for the government safes, computers, anything that works, and even things that don't," François said. "The people are stressed, and that makes it more difficult for us to protect and serve," he said. He said looters and other criminals are being arrested and held at local precincts.

Several banks opened Wednesday for the first time since the quake, resulting in long lines and agitated crowds. Even at the U.N. base, a large crowd gathered outside the window of a Soge Bank branch. The bank, which serves U.N. employees, was giving out cash advances. More than 50 people waited, but despite calls to be orderly, there was no line.

"I need the money to eat and take care of my family," said Jerry Larochelle, 33, a U.N. security guard. "I have 12 people depending on me."

Keen said there are now roughly 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Haiti and another 9,000 manning ships and helicopters. They have distributed 200,000 bottles of water and 600,000 rations. Crews are working to increase access to Haiti's damaged ports and better coordinate scores of military and relief flights that continue to ferry workers and supplies in and out of the earthquake zone.

"Every day we reach out further and touch the different pockets of the injured and the suffering," Keen said. "We are moving in the right direction, but this was a tragedy of epic proportion, and we have a long way to go in meeting the needs of the people."

As the U.N. Security Council approved 3,500 additional peacekeepers for the Haiti mission Tuesday, the U.S. military and other foreign forces began dropping food from planes, delivering troops by helicopter to volatile neighborhoods, and working to prepare other entry points for aid deliveries.

U.S. Navy divers arrived at Port-au-Prince's crippled port -- where a pier was perilously listing and two of three cranes were submerged -- to help engineers decide how much weight the docks could hold. Slowly, almost gingerly, they began to unload shipping containers from a barge that had sailed from Mobile, Ala., filled with supplies for the World Food Organization and Catholic Relief Services.

"It's really shaky down there," said one of the divers, Chris Lussier.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signed orders Wednesday to dispatch a port-clearing ship equipped with cranes to Port-au-Prince, saying it could help get the port back in operation in a week or two, the Associated Press reported.

The hospital ship Comfort, which sailed from Baltimore shortly after the quake struck, arrived off Port-au-Prince equipped to provide high-quality medical care to about 1,000 patients at a time. The patients will be transferred by helicopter from makeshift field hospitals, Keen said.

Even before the ship reached its anchorage, the Pentagon said, a 6-year-old boy and 20-year-old man, both severely injured, were flown there from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to receive more advanced medical treatment.

The delivery of aid is still hampered in some cases, leading to frustration among Haitians and the workers trying to help them. The medical organization Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Tuesday that another one of its cargo planes had been diverted from landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, where officials have struggled to cope with the massive influx of aid. The group said it has had five flights, with a total of 85 tons of medical supplies, refused landing so far.

Keen said planes are only turned away if the airport field is already crowded and they don't have sufficient fuel to be in a holding pattern. He also said that if the air traffic controller doesn't know what's on an incoming plane then he doesn't know what priority to give it.

"If the young airman has three planes coming in and he knows what's on one of them, he's going to land that one," Keen said. "He's working with the knowledge he has."

Haitian officials have made a request to have food, water and other aid delivered during the day. And U.S. military officials said they are working to improve their systems by putting a liaison officer in the process who would find out what's on the plane's cargo and communicate that to air traffic controllers.

On Tuesday night, Keen said a Brazilian plane had to be diverted to the Dominican Republic because the airport was full. He said the plane was coming in to drop off some equipment, but officials were not alerted ahead of time as to its purpose. "It should have been on the ground but we didn't know what was on it," he said.

Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn said troops are working to open more airfields, get more trucks to help deliver water and supplies to victims, and bring in repair and construction equipment to start removing rubble. Some front-loaders could be seen beginning to scoop up the debris of several downtown buildings.

U.S. and Canadian military forces have been designated to guard food distribution sites as they open, freeing the U.N. security forces to patrol and keep order. The additional U.N. peacekeeping personnel approved Tuesday will bring the total in Haiti to 12,500.

Throughout Tuesday morning, U.S. Black Hawk helicopters shuttled in troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to the National Palace compound in the center of the city. The palace itself is in ruins, but the compound is fenced off and the troops appeared to be setting up a temporary camp.

Hundreds of Haitians, many of whom are living in a squalid tent city just outside the palace grounds, pressed against the iron bars to watch the troops arrive. An old man pushed around a wheelbarrow full of popcorn, selling small plastic bags of it.

"They've come here to help give this country direction again," said Josef Laurient, 35 and unemployed, as he watched the troops unload. "I'm so happy to see them, because up to now there has been no security for us."

On a grassy hilltop at the only golf course in Port-au-Prince, soldiers with the 82nd Airborne were unloading helicopters as they shuttled in boxes of emergency rations, which the troops distributed to the residents of a tent city that had grown around them. "It's all gone pretty smoothly. Everybody's been nice and calm," said Sgt. Caleb Barrieau.

U.S. troops had been dropping food and water from helicopters in various locations, but doing so had created mayhem as Haitians scrambled for the supplies. U.N. aid officials have advised against the practice after one drop near the slum of Cité Soleil almost caused a riot.

Keen said street violence has been hard to control in part because the Haitian police force has not located all of its officers. The day after the earthquake, 500 out of 9,000 policemen showed up, he said. Once food and water was distributed to them, the number shot up. By Wednesday, 2,000 had returned to work.

Among the many supplies running short in Haiti is blood, a World Health Organization official said Tuesday. He said Haiti's National Blood Center building was damaged and that some equipment may need to be replaced.

Staff writers Theola Labbé-DeBose, Susan Kinzie, Manuel Roig-Franzia, Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson in Port-au-Prince and Debbi Wilgoren and Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.

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