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Earthquake aftershock in Haiti spurs exodus from Port-au-Prince

By Manuel Roig-Franzia, Dana Hedgpeth and Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 21, 2010; A13

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Haitians pushed and clawed onto rusty boats and dented buses by the thousands Wednesday, hoping to escape a capital city newly unnerved by the strongest aftershock since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The death toll now stands at 75,000 and is rising, according to President René Préval. A sign that appeared outside an open mass grave at the city's largest cemetery read: "Please. The hole is filled. It can't take more bodies."

About 200,000 people are injured, 1 million are displaced and half the buildings in Port-au-Prince are destroyed, according to the Haitian Directorate for Civic Protection. A new Haitian government estimate says homeless people have congregated in more than 320 fetid encampments across the capital, where pigs and dogs scavenge in the same rotting garbage piles as naked children and their parents.

United Nations officials said an exact toll of the dead and injured may never be known because the powerful earthquake was so widespread and destroyed hospitals and morgues, which traditionally track such figures.

The scale of the tragedy has overwhelmed a country ill-prepared to cope with disaster and outstripped the capacity of international relief agencies, prompting an exodus of poor Haitians, who have no guarantee of finding shelter in the villages and cities outside Port-au-Prince.

At a ferry wharf in Port-au-Prince's Boulva slum, Manie Felix -- a 26-year-old mother of three -- hoped to travel to Haiti's Jeremie region, abounding with fruit trees. But she had no money to pay the inflated passage rate, which was equivalent to $15. "I have all these kids. I have no idea what to do," she said. Felix was asleep at the port when Haiti was shaken by Wednesday's aftershock, which registered at a magnitude of 5.9 and collapsed buildings in the capital.

Outside the U.S. Embassy, Josue Pierre's 4-year-old daughter looked up at him when the earth started shaking and said, "Daddy, Daddy, are we going to die?" The tremor made the 33-year-old Haitian American all the more eager to get permission to fly to Boston to meet his wife. "Something else is going to happen here," he said. "It is just too scary to stay. It is time to go away."

Rayhold Phanore, a pastor, said he saw a roof collapse on two neighbors. "You think everything is done and then it keeps shaking," said Phanore, a Haitian American who is hoping to take his 4-year-old daughter to Orlando, where he has family.

Nearby, in the Cite Soleil slum, where authorities say 3,000 people died and 15,000 were injured, police girded for the reemergence of gangs that held sway there before the quake. Police chief Azistude Rosemond returned to work after losing his wife, daughter and parents in the quake. Now he must cope without 17 of his 67 officers and is worried about escapees from a collapsed jail.

"They were in a tough fight before the earthquake," Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, the top commander of U.S. military forces here, said after touring the slum with Ambassador Kenneth Merten. "The quake is like a kick in the teeth for them."

The city has seen little violence, despite persistent fears that shortages of food, water and shelter will spark unrest. Still, looting remains a problem. Haitian SWAT teams patrolled the government buildings around the National Palace to keep away looters, said police Cmdr. Simon Francois.

"The looters are looking for the government safes, computers, anything that works, and even things that don't," Francois said. "The people are stressed, and that makes it more difficult for us to protect and serve."

Many business owners have refused to reopen because they fear being overrun by desperate quake victims. But several banks opened Wednesday; long lines formed and crowds grew agitated, mirroring the emotions after the morning aftershock.

The aftershock's damage wasn't limited to Port-au-Prince -- the United Nations said that an undetermined number of people were injured and that buildings collapsed in Jacmel, a seaside city known for its international film festival. While crews spread across Jacmel and Port-au-Prince to assess damage, the USNS Comfort arrived but stayed far from shore. Navy and Army divers plunged into the waters beneath the capital's central pier to gauge whether it could withstand cargo and masses of people.

The damaged and sorely inadequate infrastructure is further delaying the arrival of desperately needed relief supplies, and putting more pressure on Port-au-Prince's congested airport, which is now handling 100 landings a day -- four times the normal rate, according to the United Nations.

The air-traffic control tower was damaged in the initial quake, and there is just one runway to handle dozens of relief agency and military flights from around the world. "More people wanted to come in here than there's space, and they wanted to come in quickly," said U.S. Air Force Col. Ben McMullen, deputy commander for the Special Operations unit tasked with improving airport operations. The airport "was running on a first come, first serve" basis initially, he said.

To unload the planes, it was mostly "a bunch of good strong backs," he said. Since then, more forklifts and loaders have arrived, and the military is now requiring flight plans, hoping that will end the hours-long holding patterns imposed early on. A U.N. official said it is unclear when commercial flights might resume.

The Haitian government has signed an agreement giving the United States formal control of the airport, so U.S. officials have had to referee disputes between relief flights. On Saturday, a French plane carrying a portable hospital was diverted because the landing space was full.

"Everybody thinks their plane is a priority," said Maj. Nathan Miller, who helps coordinate air operations. Lionel Isaac, the airport's director, said that crowding has been a problem and that planes need to do a better job of alerting authorities about cargoes and arrival times. "They don't do it," he said. "They just fly in."

Once the planes are on the runway, they are Air Force Tech. Sgt. Adrian Jezierski's problem. "They tell me the size, and I figure out where to park it," said Jezierski, who is among those directing planes. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle."

Staff writers William Booth, Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson in Port-au-Prince and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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