PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fresh water and food finally flowed to small pockets of this stricken city Saturday, serving up scenes of anguished unrest as parched and hungry Haitians fought for supplies on the eve of their fifth straight night in the darkened rubble.
Foreign rescue teams finally swung into action on the ground, too, setting up life-saving surgeries and miraculous rescues captured live on cable television.
But whole swaths of the capital city had yet to receive it, and homeless Haitians spent their fifth straight night squatting in the rubble amid the stench of rotting bodies, and as though in unison, offering songs of prayer.
“Time is up. It’s urgent,” said Rudy Noel, a Haitian policeman with the United Nations stabilization force who was dropping off an injured man at the capital’s General Hospital.
“I feel more than sad. I don’t have the words to describe it. Help me find some words,” he said. “The force I am getting to get through this, I am getting from God.”
With the seaport too severely damaged for use, aid flowed through the airport and overland from the Dominican Republic — water, nutritional wafers, medical supplies. U.S. Army helicopters also dropped relief from the sky.
Some U.S. citizens and injured foreigners tussled to board evacuation flights, as the exodus of those who could find a way out intensified.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in for the day pledging to be “as responsive as we need to be’’ ferried home Americans fleeing the disaster zone aboard her U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane.
President René Préval met privately with Clinton, who proposed a U.S.-led joint coordinating unit for relief aid, to fill the gap left by the death of Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, the chief U.N. envoy whose remains were pulled from the rubble of his headquarters Saturday.
“It’s a terrible, horrible catastrophe for the people of Haiti,” said Clinton. “But I think the outpouring from America and beyond should give them some reason to hope.”
The number of victims from Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude quake remains unknown, but Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that government workers have removed 20,000 cadavers from the streets of the capital.
Along one of the capital’s dusty hillside, U.S. Blackhawk helicopters from the USS Carl Vinson shuttled military rations, water and Gatorade. It was among nine drop sites.
“Not too many choices, drop here,” said U.S. Army Capt. Carlos Vicens, of the Puerto Rico National Guard, as his crew let loose aid near rubble and a tent city six miles north of the airport at Carrefour, the Port-au-Prince suburb nearest to the quake’s epicenter.
Haitians below waved their hands wildly, then trampled the field of plants to reach the meals-ready-to-eat boxes chosen for a soft landing — as the helicopter blew up stones and raced away.
There were scenes of chaos as desperate Haitians fought for the first surge of food, but welcomed the military.
A grisly greeting atop the rubble of one building awaited the 10,000 American forces forming up for the humanitarian invasion:
Welcome the US Marines.
We need help.
Dead bodies inside.
The seaport, a major lifeline, was so damaged that cargo could not move through it. So, by Saturday, the U.N. stabilization force established a humanitarian corridor between Haiti and an airport in the Dominican Republic to truck aid overland — a 50-mile stretch.
In one of the first large-scale aid efforts, the U.N. World Food Program estimated that it had distributed 40,000 rations Saturday, including high-energy biscuits, water containers and water-purification tablets.
Electricity and communications were still cut to damaged sections of the city, still complicating relief distribution efforts.
U.N. officials said Saturday the next food distribution wouldn’t go out until Monday as the agency still had to identify secure sites to do so. UN workers began to distribute food at the National Palace briefly, but the crowds got out of control.
“Ideally, 48 hours from now,” Kim Bolduc, deputy special representative for the U.N.’s mission, told reporters.
In Miami, guards made plans to relocate hundreds of detainees from federal lock-ups, preparing space just in case. The U.S. government granted 18-month extensions on the working papers for Haitians already in the country, but said newcomers would not be so entitled.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday there was no evidence that Haitians were taking to the sea to flee their homeland. But she vowed to repatriate them, if they chose to do so.
Meantime, in Washington, President Obama met with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who he put in charge of a rallying donations for Haiti relief efforts.