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Haiti calls off search for survivors of deadly earthquake

By Scott Wilson and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A07

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- The Haitian government on Friday called off the search for survivors 10 days after the devastating earthquake, and moved forward with plans to house 400,000 displaced Haitians in tent cities in an effort to improve abysmal sanitation and scant security while the capital takes the first steps to rebuild.

Most international search and rescue teams wound down operations, a bleak acknowledgment that anyone still missing beneath the pyramids of debris that define this city's landscape has by now perished. Team members from Fairfax County said Friday that they had rescued 16 Haitians and could be heading home in the next several days.

The teams had remarkable success digging free survivors in the days after the Jan. 12 quake, managing to save an 84-year-old woman Friday. Haitian officials place the death toll at 75,000 and rising, while thousands of bodies remain buried in homes and buildings tumbled down by the 7.0-magnitude quake.

Across the capital, which continued to rumble Friday with aftershocks, international relief agencies stepped up food and water distribution to thousands of desperate Haitians, many of whom are now living in more than 500 squalid camps that have risen in parks, stadiums and playgrounds. Fires burned in homes and several warehouses downtown that smelled of gasoline, apparently arsons set by looters.

"The news is that the situation is very bad but not as bad as it was in the beginning," said Miltos Sarigiannidis, a Greek doctor with Doctors of the World.

U.S. military officials said 2,600 U.S. troops are on the ground here, with an additional 10,300 in ships offshore. Navy and Coast Guard engineers continued work on repairing the port, a potentially key delivery point for aid that would relieve the overwhelmed airport, although they acknowledged that a complete fix is probably months away.

Haitian government officials outlined plans to erect 11 tent cities in and around the capital. The emerging plan, which is being coordinated with international relief officials, also calls for one camp to house 10,000 Haitians in the town of Croix des Bouquets, about eight miles northeast of the capital.

"We're here to support the Haitian government in what they want to do," said Nicholas Reader, a spokesman for the United Nations' relief effort here. "People will do what they need to do. If they feel they need to leave the city to survive, we'll support them in doing what they need to do."

Many Haitians are now using the urban camps primarily as places to sleep, spending their days hunting for food and water and watching over what few possessions remain in the ruins of their homes. U.N. officials estimate that nearly 1 million Haitians have been displaced by the quake, about half of them now filling the makeshift camps.

In recent days, thousands of Haitians have fled the capital by boat and bus, heading to the provinces, where many have family. Whether hundreds of thousands of Haitians will leave even their ruined homes for remote tent cities, however, is uncertain given the threat of looting and squatters.

In one camp sprawling across a square adjacent to the collapsed National Palace, Kettly Bernard, 44, said, "I'd like to stay right here, especially if they give us tents."

Her nearby home collapsed in the quake, killing two of her five children. The three others, including a sallow and feverish 16-month-old boy, dozed on dirty mattresses beneath a bedsheet strung up for shelter.

"The point is that they will take everything from my home if I leave, and I have nothing else but that," she said. "And will the government give us food? At least here I am near people who help me eat."

A group of entrepreneurial Haitian men set up a long-distance phone service under the marble monument at the center of the square, marking the tomb of the Haitian independence figure Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Many of the camps, while fetid and dangerous, are taking on the characteristics of small towns.

The Haitian government has listed 508 such settlements. None are served by sewage systems or an organized method of trash disposal.

The government based its estimate of the need for 11 tent cities -- which will be sturdier and have sewage and cooking facilities and other basic amenities -- on initial assessments of the camps' sanitation and safety.

But those demands are likely to grow, officials say, and aid groups are working to assemble resources to erect the new encampments. The International Organization for Migration estimates that only one-tenth of the roughly 200,000 tents needed have arrived so far.

But there were also signs that life, at least commercial life, was trying to return to normal.

At a commercial park of factories where workers make T-shirts and underwear for clients such as Gap, the owners were feeding workers and counting heads to see if they could reopen Monday. The free hot food was some of the only available in Haiti, served by the mobile kitchens brought in by the Dominican Republic government.

"It is not that complicated. They need help. A couple of soldier with guns protect us," said Maria Isauna Jimenez, a manger of seven mobile kitchens capable of producing 35,000 meals a day. "You don't need an army. Just give them food."

Staff writer Theola Labbé-DeBose contributed to this report.

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