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Desperation grows as aid begins to trickle in

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Food, water and medicine began to trickle in Friday, and Haitians received some welcome news from the United States, even as reports emerged of more cities left in ruin and isolation.

With a U.S. aircraft carrier stationed off the coast of Haiti and the security situation deteriorating in the nation’s capital, the commander of the U.S. military relief effort said supply lines had finally begun moving.

“If the citizens of Haiti will just remain in place and remain calm, help is on the way,” Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, said at a press briefing in Miami.

The Haitian government, he said, had begun broadcasting the locations of distribution centers for food, water and medicine.

“Go to those place, use those places,’ ” he said. “That’s where you can get help.”

A reprieve also arrived from President Barack Obama, who on Friday approved Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, which will allow them to stay and work in the United States and send money home to their loved ones.

The announcement followed an earlier order from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who temporarily halted deportations, allowing 30,000 Haitians with expulsion orders to remain in the United States.

Though there was little evidence of relief yet in the desperate streets of Port-au-Prince, supplies were moving out of the city’s airport, Fraser said.

More military forces were on the way as well to help the 4,200 personnel already in the country or offshore on the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-power aircraft carrier.

Heavy equipment to clear rubble-choked roads was coming with them, but Fraser acknowledged there were major obstacles ahead and said he could not yet estimate when aid would began arriving to the hardest hit areas.

“I don’t have a timeline right now because we don’t have a good idea of the full extent of the problems,” he said.

Outside the capital, Haitains continued to struggle with the devastation.

In the coastal city of Jacmel in southwestern Haiti, scores of homes and buildings were reduced to rubble. At a vocational and auto school, an estimated 100 students were crushed when the building collapsed, neighbors said. Several bodies could be seen amid the wreckage, and flies buzzed all over.

The winding road between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince is buried in mounds of dirt and travelers are forced to get through on motorcycles.

The obstacles will only leave Jacmel and other cities and towns in southern and western Haiti more isolated and desperately in need of water, medicine and food.

“We need so much help, because there are people injured at the hospital, because there are a lot of bodies under the building,” said Phen Lafondse, 34, an electrician.

In the Dominican Republic town of Jimani on the border with Haiti, authorities said they were bracing for “tens of thousands” of Haitian refugees.

U.N. General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon said up to 50 percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince and other hard-hit areas have been damaged, The Associated Press reported.

The U.N. said 37 of its personnel were now confirmed dead and more than 300 were still unaccounted for after the organization’s headquarters collapsed during Tuesday’s earthquake.

“There is chaos, but the chaos is for everybody, even those managing the chaos,” first lady Elisabeth Preval told The Miami Herald. “Right now we just extracted a senator from the parliament.”

The new damage reports come as security was deteriorating in Port-au-Prince.

Eyewitnesses in Port-au-Prince said frustrated survivors had blocked some roads with corpses and groups of men were spotted roaming the streets with machetes.

The U.N. World Food Program said its warehouses in the capital had been looted and didn’t know how much of its 15,000-ton stockpile of food remained, The Associated Press reported. The Brazilian military warned aid groups to add security details.

Four Coast Guard cutters had arrived to provide relief and evacuate the injured, Napolitano said in a statement.

By Friday morning, the Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was off the coast of Haiti, ready to run helicopter sorties to designated landing zones and drop off relief supplies.

“We stand ready to deliver,” said Navy Rear Adm. Ted Branch, operation coordinator for the Vinson, adding that two choppers had already delivered water to Port-au-Prince airport.

Branch described the scale of the devastation as “daunting” and said the supply runs would be complicated in hilly and debris-strewn areas, in part because the debris could get caught in rotor blades.

In Haiti, the vanguard of 900 paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division was already on the ground to help secure distribution sites, Branch said.

Also Friday, The Dominican Institute of Communications said mobile phone service in Haiti had been restored after it established a satellite uplink in Port-au-Prince. But many callers were still having trouble getting through.

Meanwhile, the Navy and Coast Guard are using the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba as a way-station for wounded American citizens being evacuated from Haiti, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami. He had no comment on whether there were plans to use it for a bigger humanitarian mission, but the base was equipped to shelter 10,000 refugees in pop-up tents.


The Cuban government also gave the U.S. military a break and permitted direct flights over Cuba to bring the wounded to Miami.

Typically, U.S. aircraft have to go around Cuba to reach the remote base in southeast Cuba, a Cold War legacy that adds about 90 minutes to travel time from south Florida.

U.S. Coast Guard helicopters plucked a total of 17 U.S. citizens out of Port-au-Prince on Wednesday and Thursday and took them to Guantanamo, said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, a Guantanamo spokesman.

Even as aid has been pouring into the nation, there have been problems getting it to those who need it most.

“I have 16 trucks ready to distribute 600,000 gallons of clean water a day,” said business owner Gesner Champagne. “Yesterday we used four of them. We just don’t know who is on charge.”

Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime acknowledged the breakdown, saying it was traditionally the U.N. Stabilization Force that coordinated relief efforts. But the U.N. is dealing with its own tragedy — three of its top leaders, including mission chief Hedi Annabi — are presumed dead.

“Before we can help the people, we have to figure out how to function under an extraordinarily difficult situation,” President Rene Preval said Thursday. “We can’t even talk to one another.”

Government ministers finally received satellite phones and 40 radios Thursday, as Preval asked the country’s three leading cellphone companies to do all they could to get communications up working.

On Thursday government workers dug mass graves and buried more than 7,000 dead, as corpses overwhelmed the city.

Thousands more corpses crammed hospitals and morgues still without electricity and communications two days after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

Casualty estimates were still unknown, but the Haitian Red Cross in Port-au-Prince estimated the dead at 45,000 to 50,000, a figure reported in Geneva by spokesman Jean-Luc Martinage of the International Red Cross.

In portions of the city, the nauseating odor of the dead was inescapable.

A pregnant woman seeking aid at a Red Cross station was told her fetus had died.

“We need help,” said Rothin Massena, 29, a student who stood amid the wails of earthquake-wounded people outside a Petionville hotel. “Where is the international community for us? We don’t have food. We don’t have water. We don’t have money.”

Preval told The Miami Herald that in a 20-hour span, government workers removed 7,000 corpses from the streets and morgue and buried them in mass graves. Still, thousands more awaited burial, a trail of dead along sidewalks from downtown to the hills of Petionville, many abandoned, some covered in sheets or carted through the streets on makeshift stretchers fashioned from wood and soiled mattresses.

There was no choice, said Dr. Ariel Henry of the Ministry of Health, but to resort to landfill-style burials.

“We are out of hospitals. We don’t even have electricity. And we don’t even have supplies,” including syringes, antibiotics, painkillers and blood for transfusions.


(Staff writers Charles, Daniel and Robles reported from Haiti. Jen Lebovich reported from Guantanamo Bay. Daniel Shoer reported from the Dominican Republic. Carol Rosenberg reported from Miami, as did staff writers Daniel Chang, Douglas Hanks, Curtis Morgan, Nancy San Martin and Jim Wyss. Lesley Clark contributed from Port-au-Prince.)


(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HAITI

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20100115 Damage HAITI, 20100115 USNS Comfort, 20100115 Cathedral HAITI, 20100115 Quake severity, 20100115 HAITI poll,