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Ruin, desperation in Haiti

Bodies lie in piles; survivors struggle; president says toll is unimaginable | International aid effort underway for nation's worst quake in a century

By Simon Romero
New York Times / January 14, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Survivors strained desperately yesterday against the chunks of concrete that buried this city along with thousands of its residents, rich and poor, from shantytowns to the presidential palace, in the devastating earthquake that struck Tuesday night.

Calling the death toll “unimaginable’’ as he surveyed the wreckage, Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, said he had no idea where he would sleep. Schools, hospitals, and a prison were damaged. Sixteen UN peacekeepers were killed, at least 140 UN workers were missing, including the chief of its mission, Hedi Annabi. The city’s archbishop, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, was feared dead.

And the poor who define this nation squatted in the streets, some hurt and bloody, many more without food and water, close to piles of covered corpses and rubble. Limbs protruded from disintegrated concrete, muffled cries emanated from deep inside the wrecks of buildings - many of them poorly constructed in the first place - as Haiti struggled to grasp the unknown toll from its worst earthquake in more than a century.

“Please save my baby!’’ Jeudy Francia, a woman in her 20s, shrieked outside St. Esprit Hospital in the city. Her child, a girl about 4 years old, writhed in pain in the hospital’s chaotic courtyard, near where a handful of corpses lay under white blankets. “There is no one, nothing, no medicines, no explanations for why my daughter is going to die.’’

Preval said thousands of people were probably killed, the Associated Press reported. Leading Senator Youri Latortue told the AP that 500,000 could be dead, but acknowledged that nobody really knows.

Governments and aid agencies from Beijing to Grand Rapids began marshaling supplies and staff to send here, though the obstacles proved frustrating just one day after the powerful 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit. Power and phone service were out. Flights were severely limited at Port-au-Prince’s main airport, telecommunications were barely functioning, operations at the port were shut down, and most of the medical facilities had been severely damaged, if not leveled.

A Red Cross field team of officials from several nations had to spend last night in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to gather its staff before taking the six-hour drive in the morning across the border to the earthquake zone.

“We were on the plane here with a couple of different agencies, and they all are having similar challenges of access,’’ Colin Chaperon, a field director for the American Red Cross, said in a telephone interview. “There is a wealth of resources out there, and everybody has the good will to go in and support the Haitian Red Cross.’’

The quake struck just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, ravaging the infrastructure of Haiti’s fragile government and destroying some of its most important cultural symbols.

“Parliament has collapsed,’’ Preval told The Miami Herald. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.’’

He added: “All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe.’’

President Obama promised that Haiti would have the “unwavering support’’ of the United States.

Obama said that US aid agencies were moving swiftly to get help to Haiti and that search-and-rescue teams were en route. He described the reports of destruction as “truly heart-wrenching,’’ made more cruel given Haiti’s long-troubled circumstances. Obama did not make a specific aid pledge, and administration officials said they were still trying to figure out what the nation needed. But the president urged Americans to dig into their pockets and to go to the White House’s website, www.whitehouse.gov, to find ways to donate money.

“This is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share,’’ Obama said, speaking in the morning in the White House diplomatic reception room with Vice President Joe Biden at his side.

Aid agencies said they would open their storehouses of food and water in Haiti, and the World Food Program was flying in nearly 100 tons of ready-to-eat meals and high-energy biscuits from El Salvador. The United Nations said it was freeing up $10 million in emergency relief money, the European Union pledged $4.4 million, and groups such as Doctors Without Borders were setting up clinics in tents and open-air triage centers.

Supplies began filtering in from the Dominican Republic as charter flights were restarted between Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince.

Some aid groups with offices in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, were also busy searching for their own dead and missing.

Five workers with the UN mission in Haiti were killed and as many as 100 more were missing after the collapse of the office’s headquarters in the Christopher Hotel in the hills above Port-au-Prince.

Forty or more other UN employees were missing at a sprawling compound occupied by UN agencies.

It was one of the deadliest single days for UN employees. The head of the group’s Haitian mission, Annabi, of Tunisia, and his deputy were among the missing, said Alain LeRoy, the UN peacekeeping chief.

Earlier yesterday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said in radio interviews that Annabi had been killed in the collapse.

The Brazilian Army, which has one of the largest peacekeeping presences in Haiti, said 11 of its soldiers had been killed and seven had been injured; seven more were unaccounted for.

During a driving tour of the capital yesterday, Bernice Robertson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said she saw at least 30 bodies, most covered with plastic bags or sheets. She also witnessed heroic recovery efforts. “There are people digging with their hands, searching for people in the rubble,’’ she said in a video interview by Skype. “There was unimaginable destruction.’’

Paul McPhun, operations manager for Doctors Without Borders, described scenes of chaos.

When staff members tried to travel by car, “they were mobbed by crowds of people,’’ McPhun said. “They just want help, and anybody with a car is better off than they are.’’

Contaminated drinking water is a longstanding and severe problem in Haiti, causing high rates of illness that put many people in the hospital. Providing sanitation and clean water is one of the top priorities for aid organizations to try to avert outbreaks of dysentery.

More than 30 significant aftershocks of a 4.5 magnitude or higher rattled the country through Tuesday night and into the early morning, said Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey. “We’ve seen a lot of shaking still happening,’’ she said.

Bob Poff, a Salvation Army official, described in a written account posted on the Salvation Army’s website how he had loaded injured victims - “older, scared, bleeding, and terrified’’ - into the back of his truck and set off in search of help. In two hours, he managed to travel less than a mile, he said.

Poff described how he and hundreds of neighbors spent Tuesday night outside, in the playground near a children’s home run by the group. Every tremor sent ripples of fear through the survivors, providing “another reminder that we are not yet finished with this calamity,’’ he wrote.

He continued, “And when it comes, all of the people cry out, and the children are terrified.’’

Louise Ivers, the clinical director of the aid group Partners in Health, said in an e-mail message to her colleagues: “Port-au-Prince is devastated, lot of deaths. SOS. SOS . . . Please help us.’’

Photos from Haiti yesterday showed a hillside scraped nearly bare of its houses, which had tumbled into the ravine below.

Haiti’s many manmade woes - its dire poverty, political infighting, and history of insurrection - have been worsened repeatedly by natural disasters. At the end of 2008, four hurricanes flooded whole towns, knocked out bridges, and left a destitute population in even more desperate conditions.