Emergency aid flowed from around the world toward Haiti on Thursday, only to confront a reality that grew more desperate by the hour: Crippled ports and communications left stunned earthquake survivors on their own to scavenge for food and water, carry away legions of dead and dig frantically for voices calling out from under the...
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Emergency aid flowed from around the world toward Haiti on Thursday, only to confront a reality that grew more desperate by the hour: Crippled ports and communications left stunned earthquake survivors on their own to scavenge for food and water, carry away legions of dead and dig frantically for voices calling out from under the rubble.
President Obama promised $100 million and the full resources of the U.S. government for what he said would be one of the largest relief efforts in recent history. U.S. officials said 30 countries had either sent aid or promised to do so. Rescue teams from eight countries were on the ground.
Two days after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, there was little evidence of the aid effort in the capital of the hemisphere’s poorest country.
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“In Haiti, you’re lucky if they come with a screwdriver,” said Jean Marc Mercier, a Haitian American who spent the past two days hunting for survivors at the Hotel Montana, a longtime gathering spot for diplomats, journalists, humanitarian workers and businessmen.
The toppled six-story hotel was an exception to the scenes of abandonment elsewhere; a rescue team newly arrived from Virginia was combing the debris.
Mercier, who runs a computer business in Haiti, said he and others had been burrowing by hand with others toward voices calling out from deep inside the wreckage. They managed to save one woman, an aid worker.
“Last night after I went to bed, all I heard were the voices in my head. One guy told me not to bother: ‘Go help people who are in better shape. There is no way you are getting to me,’ ” said Mercier, 44. “I wasn’t able to sleep all night.”
Asked how many were in the hotel when it collapsed, he whispered: “Hundreds.”
Aid officials said the risk of violence and looting would increase as scant food and water run out and frustrated families fail to find medical care for the injured.
Officials who were willing to estimate the number of dead acknowledged they were just guessing. Victor Jackson, an official with Haiti’s Red Cross, told Reuters news agency that his organization was estimating 45,000 to 50,000 had died.
The streets were filled with beleaguered residents milling about, left with no jobs, no instructions on what to do and no place to buy food or to take the injured. Many said they felt totally alone and saw no signs that relief was on the way, as their pleas began to give way to anger.
“The government is mute,” a dismayed Haitian said, hurrying past a decomposing body. “They do nothing.”
All over Port-au-Prince, it seemed, the living bore the dead — in the beds of pickups, in wheelbarrows, on makeshift stretchers. At a hospital named Saint Marie, crowded a day earlier by dozens of people seeking help, the courtyard was empty except for two cleaners mopping bloody water.
Even many who didn’t lose their homes were afraid to sleep in them.
Lionel Aceveje, a police officer who lives in a hillside shantytown around the suburb of Petionville, said his family of six was sleeping outside in the evening chill. “Every little shaking terrifies us,” he said.
Aid was slowed by the poor roads, airport and seaport of a wretchedly poor nation. Both the air and seaports were proving to be bottlenecks for the international aid effort.
Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard medical professor and U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti, said supply lines are often fragile, even without a devastating natural disaster.
The quake-damaged seaport is “basically shut down,” said Farmer, who has 27 years’ experience working in Haiti. Air traffic was backed up, he said, with planes jockeying to land in a minimally functioning airport.
At midday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily halted all civilian flights from the U.S. at Haiti’s request, because the airport was jammed and jet fuel was limited for return flights.
Civilian relief flights were later allowed to resume.
UNICEF, the U.N.’s children’s charity, was amassing supplies in Panama for an airlift. The agency sent one plane with medical kits, blankets and tents to Port-au-Prince on Thursday, but the plane could not land and had to return to Panama.
“It’s really a logistics nightmare,” Farmer said. “We need to fix the port and open up other land bridges and air spaces where planes and helicopters can land.”
The U.N. response has been further hampered by its own losses. Although there’s no official body count, U.N. officials said at least 30 colleagues in Haiti are known to be dead and 100 to 150 remain missing.
In Washington, Obama enlisted both of his immediate predecessors, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, to lead the initiative, following an example set by Bush after the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami. It was his first presidential request of Bush.
“You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten,” Obama said, addressing the people of Haiti. “In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”
U.S. officials evacuated between 300 and 400 U.S. citizens by air, most of them to the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
One focus of the U.S. effort was restoring communications, which were so bad that Obama was unable to reach Haitian President René Préval on Thursday afternoon.
A U.S. diplomat was among the dead. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Victoria DeLong, 57, a cultural-affairs officer, had been stationed in Haiti since last year. He said she was from California, but her hometown was not available.
The aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, equipped with three operating rooms, 19 helicopters and a water-purification system, was en route to Haiti and was expected to arrive today with helicopters to help shuttle relief supplies and serve as a floating hospital.
The Navy also sent an amphibious assault ship, the Bataan, with 2,000 members of a Marine expeditionary force aboard and its own medical facilities. Officials said they hoped the Marine contingent would arrive today. The military also has ordered two other amphibious vessels to set sail.
About 125 troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were also sent, the leading edge of a contingent of 3,000 soldiers, Defense Department officials said.
For survivors, the shortages of food, water and fuel carried the prospect of worsened hardship in a nation with a volatile history.
Chaotic lines formed at gas stations, though it was unclear if any gasoline would be pumped. People scavenged for water, carrying empty canisters in the street.
One elderly man, who wanted to be identified by his first name only, Milton, said Haitians were hoping that U.S. Marines, who have been deployed in the past during times of political upheaval, would come again.
“When the U.S. occupation is good and big, it creates work, builds roads, helps people,” he said. Not only that, Milton insisted that Marines tended to toss uneaten food into the city’s omnipresent mountains of garbage.
“They bring good ham and cheese,” he said, “And you know it’s good food because they have eaten it.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.