Haiti: relief efforts shifting from trapped to starving survivors

haitPORT-AU-PRINCE—Even as faint cries continue to be detected beneath the rubble, the emphasis of relief teams is already shifting away from the trapped to confront a much broader humanitarian challenge: Helping the hundreds of thousands struggling for food and shelter across the city.

The consensus among quake experts is that time is short to save the trapped. Still, there were some isolated successes. Rescuers Friday saved a woman who sang “Jesus will save me” just before medics cut off her leg to free her.

But hundreds of thousands are homeless, tens of thousands are wounded, and nearly everyone lacks clean drinking water, raising the risk of a secondary wave of water-borne disease and death in coming days.

On Saturday, relief groups and officials were focused on moving the food, water and other aid flowing into Haiti in earnest out of the clogged airport and to hungry, haggard earthquake survivors in the capital.

In many neighborhoods, outside help hadn’t yet arrived. At the corner of Rue St. Gerard and Route des Dalles, a law office has crumbled in ruin; on Friday a trapped woman could be heard moaning inside. The hillside across the street is a fresh, red-dirt grave for 32 victims.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, to confer with President Rene Preval and U.S. and international civilian and military officials on how best to help the recovery effort and Haitian government.

Ms. Clinton on Friday cited a “race against time” before anxiety and anger create additional problems. Relief workers warned that unless supplies are quickly delivered, Port-au-Prince will degenerate into lawlessness.

A water delivery truck driver said he was attacked in one of the city’s slums. There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street.

On Friday, U.S. military crews got the capital’s airport working, and cargo planes delivered rescue supplies. But progress remained slow. The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, for instance, floated five miles offshore, unable to find a place to unload supplies because of extensive damage to Haiti’s main port.

At the airport, a stream of flights arrived and departed without difficulty in the predawn hours for the first time since the quake. But members of the Air Force team, the 621st Contingency Response Wing, expressed frustration they hadn’t been sent earlier to help the aid flow there, saying Thursday’s flight freeze may have been avoided.

“We would have liked to have been there a little bit sooner to unclog the airfield,” said Col. Brian O’Connor, the wing’s commander. “It makes me cringe, it’s so disorderly.”

Haitians are getting increasingly desperate. There were scattered reports of looting and violence, reflecting the challenge of policing and governance amid such a broad crisis. Small, roving bands of young men with machetes raided several wrecked homes, the Associated Press reported.

Senior U.S. officials said Washington is beginning to map out a reconstruction plan. The State Department’s point person on Haiti, Cheryl Mills, stressed that Washington isn’t drafting plans for some kind of U.S. interim administrator.

The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in the earthquake. Other estimates are higher. Haiti’s secretary of state for public safety, told Reuters that the death toll could hit 140,000.

Among the living on Friday were people like Junior Lerolien. Three days after losing his entire family, he walked the streets in search of water. The 22-year-old tried to get in to the United Nations compound near the city’s airport, but was turned back by guards. Mr. Lerolien was outside his house in the Delmas district Tuesday when he felt the shock. “I saw the house collapse,” he said. His mother, father, three brothers and sister were inside. The rubble was so deep, he didn’t even try to dig them out. “My whole family is buried,” Mr. Lerolien said.

United Nations disaster experts said at least 10% of housing in the Haitian capital was destroyed, leaving about 300,000 homeless. The U.N. launched an appeal to raise $550 million to help survivors.

Just a few kilometers from the intersection of Rue St. Gerard and Route del Dalles, the national soccer stadium has become a makeshift hospital. Several hundred people turned up looking for treatment.

“No gloves, nothing to sew wounds, no antiseptic,” said Wadner Lima, a volunteer Haitian paramedic. Mr. Lima tended to a boy with a head wound and a man whose leg was badly burned. His medical kit, a small red tackle box, had been depleted. “We just have some gauze left.”

Outside the stadium, refugees clamored to board buses out of the city. A dead body lay atop a mattress.Across Port-au-Prince, doctors and nurses provided medical attention in almost medieval conditions. Outside Haiti’s national public-health laboratory, scores of wounded pleaded to get inside, where a squad of Belgian first-responders and Canadian military medics operated a field hospital.

People carried injured relatives on makeshift gurneys. On the sidewalk outside the gates, a teenage girl lay near an old woman on a table with a crumpled umbrella shielding a bleeding knee.

A young man, eyes wide with terror, was carried on a piece of plywood. His distended leg leaked pus. “Now it is emergency medicine, like war medicine—amputations, cleaning wounds, keeping people alive,” said Ronald Ackermans, a nurse and part of a team of 60 or so medics and search-and-rescue personnel who flew in from Brussels.

One of the problems is what to do with the dead. Back on Rue St. Gerard in the Carrefour Feuille neighborhood, people rubbed limes on their nostrils to stymie the smell of death.

The earthquake remade this neighborhood in a few, violent seconds. An art gallery is in ruins; so is a pharmacy. No one knows what became of the old lady who used to sell rice from a boiling pot on the corner.

Clare Lydie Parent, who is mayor of the hillside town of Petionville, stood amidst the rubble in an official orange vest on Friday, helping direct rescue efforts at what had been the law offices—the building with a survivor in it.

“I heard the voice this morning,” Ms. Parent said. “She gave me her name. She said, ‘Mary.'”

Next door, at the small Universite Ste. Gerard, there were no orange vests, just young men scooping and tugging with their bare hands.

On Friday, residents heard voices and were convinced that several students remained alive in a basement classroom that had room for 60.

“They are calling to us, ‘We’re here, please help us,'” said Frederic Sergefils, who believed his brother was among those inside. At one point, one of the rescuers used a chair seat to dig into the wreckage. Just down the street, a wide-eyed Marie Yolene, 22, looked at the wreckage of a four-room house she shared with her three sisters, aged 21, 18 and 15.

The chairs and beds inside lay open to the street: The exterior walls had collapsed outward.

Three of the four were in the house when the quake hit.

The fourth, Marie, had been at the city’s Sacred Heart Cathedral—which collapsed, killing many. Yet all four survived. “I was so lucky,” Marie said.

Share this post