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Surreal scene

Desperation grows despite aid

Fear of chaos builds amid enormous task

People looted yesterday from a destroyed store in Port-au-Prince, and young men were seen downtown with machetes. People looted yesterday from a destroyed store in Port-au-Prince, and young men were seen downtown with machetes. (Carlos Barria/ Reuters)
By Marc Lacey
New York Times / January 16, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - As tension rose in the battered Haitian capital, relief workers scrambled yesterday to deliver desperately needed food, water, and medical care, recover survivors trapped in the rubble, and collect thousands of decaying bodies from the streets.

An immense relief operation was underway, with cargo planes and military helicopters buzzing over the crowded Toussaint Louverture International Airport. But three days after the earthquake struck, with many cries for help going silent, not nearly enough search and rescue teams or emergency supplies could make it here: The United Nations said it had fed 8,000 people, while 2 million to 3 million people remained in dire need.

Patience was wearing thin, and reports of looting increased, as another day went by with no power and limited fresh water.

“For the moment, this is anarchy,’’ said Adolphe Reynald, a top aide to the mayor of Port-au-Prince, as he supervised a makeshift first aid center that was registering long lines of injured people but had no medicine to treat them. “There’s nothing we can do. We’re out here to show that we care, that we’re suffering along with them.’’

The United Nations said that 9,000 people had been buried in mass graves - and collecting bodies had become one of the few ways to earn money.

On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, more than 100 bodies were dumped in piles large and small, including two mass graves next to a giant backhoe in a valley ringed by green hills.

A Globe reporter and photographer viewed multiple graves yesterday on a drive along the winding Highway 1 heading north out of town.

At the first turn, a right turn off the road, three piles of at least three dozen people were dumped on the ground. One pile appeared to contain debris from a school. Bodies mixed with broken concrete, school records, notebooks, dictionaries, and boxes of chalk.

A few minutes’ drive north, a left turn on a dirt road that appeared to head to the sea revealed another pile of at least a dozen bodies blocking the road, partially buried in sand and gravel. It appeared that the group had been dumped and partly covered over.

The most stunning scene came farther north, down a long and winding road into a grassy pit ringed by hills. At the bottom, near a giant backhoe stamped CNE, two graves 20 feet deep held as many as 100 people. More bodies sat in piles on the rocky earth.

Several Haitian news websites identify CNE as a state company that helps in national rebuilding projects.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would visit Haiti today to show support for the victims of the 7.0-magnitude quake. The Obama administration, cautioning that it would take time for all the aid to reach those in need, granted Haitians living in the United States protection from deportation for 18 months and permission to work.

Obama said he had spoken with the Haitian president, Rene Preval, and pledged the United States’ full commitment in helping rebuild from a quake that, according to UN estimates, destroyed at least 30 percent of the capital and half the buildings in some neighborhoods.

“As I told the president, we realize that he needs more help and his country needs more help - much more,’’ Obama said. “And in this difficult hour, we will continue to provide it.’’

The United States, in fact, took firmer control of the emergency operation yesterday: After three days of chaos and congestion at the airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s government ceded control of it to American technicians, to speed the flow of relief supplies and personnel.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has been coordinating air traffic control there, issued a stern warning to allow aid to flow in a more orderly way: No planes from the United States, military or civilian, would be allowed to land without express permission from the agency.

Exceptions to the new rule would be granted only to humanitarian planes, based on arrival times and on the availability of space at the airport, a notice from the agency said.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that 9,000 to 10,000 US forces were expected in Haiti, on shore and off, by Monday, and that the Pentagon was poised to send more.

Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Mullen said that about 5,000 would be ground forces, who would help with security and logistical support, among other duties; the rest would be on ships. He said that a US aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson, arrived off Haiti early yesterday with 19 helicopters aboard, and that it would serve as a staging area for relief flights, purified water and other supplies.

Port-au-Prince, volatile in normal times, remained relatively calm, but the United Nations reported that one of its food warehouses in the capital had been looted. It called the theft limited and said it had recovered most of its provisions. Looting of houses and shops increased yesterday, and anger boiled over in unpredictable ways. Residents near the city’s overfilled main cemetery stoned a group of ambulance workers seeking to drop off more bodies.

Some people were bracing for the worst. Harold Marzouka, a Haitian-American businessman who was hustling his family onto a private jet to Miami, said he could feel the tension rising.

“If aid doesn’t start pouring in at a significant level, there will be serious consequences on the streets,’’ he said. “People are in the shocked and frightened phase. But the next phase will be survival.’’

Globe staff writer Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

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Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti (Globe File Photo) Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti
Maria Sacchetti from Haiti
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