Haitian earthquake survivors fought over food and water and others fled their wrecked capital on Saturday as the United States rolled out what President Barack Obama called one of its largest relief efforts to date.
Four days after a massive earthquake killed up to 200 000 people and devastated most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were still desperately waiting for help as scavengers preyed on shattered buildings in the widespread absence of authority and order.
Even as aid poured into Port-au-Prince airport, thousands of Haitians streamed out of the city on foot with suitcases on their heads or jammed in cars to find food, water and shelter in the countryside and flee aftershocks as well as violence.
Logistical logjams still kept major relief from reaching most victims, many of them sheltering in makeshift camps on streets strewn with debris and decomposing bodies.
On the city’s shattered main commercial boulevard near the port, hundreds of looters swarmed over the wreckage of stores, carrying off T-shirts, bags, toys and anything else they could find. Fighting broke out between groups of looters carrying knives, ice-picks, hammers and rocks.
With the government saying up to 200 000 people may have been killed, the quake could be one of the 10 deadliest in history.
Obama promised help as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti where the shell-shocked government gave the United States control over the congested main airport to guide aid flights from around the world.
“We’re moving forward with one of the largest relief efforts in our history to save lives and deliver relief that averts an even larger catastrophe,” Obama said, flanked at the White House by his predecessors George Bush and Bill Clinton who will lead a charity drive to help Haiti.
But on the streets of the city, where scarce police patrols fired occasional shots and tear gas to try to disperse looters, the distribution of aid appeared random, chaotic and minimal. Downtown, young men could be seen carrying pistols.
As international rescue crews combed rubble for survivors across the capital, there were jostling scrums for food and water as US military helicopters swooped down to throw out boxes of water bottles and rations. A reporter also saw foreign aid workers tossing packets of food to desperate Haitians.
“The distribution is totally disorganised. They are not identifying the people who need the water. The sick and the old have no chance,” said Estime Pierre Deny, standing at the back of a crowd looking for water with his empty plastic container.
Some survivors desperate to receive aid painted sheets with the words in English, “We need assistance for the victims, we need food and water.” Elsewhere, a white-painted wooden sign propped in front of a destroyed building read: “Welcome the US Marines, we need some help, dead bodies inside”.
Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country and has for decades struggled with devastating storms, floods and political unrest. About 9 000 UN peacekeepers have provided security here since a 2004 uprising ousted one president.
Looting had been sporadic since Tuesday’s earthquake, which flattened large parts of the capital. But it appeared to be widening on Saturday as people became more desperate.
A Reuters photographer saw police shooting in the air, grabbing and throwing people to the ground, and occasionally kicking detainees in parts of the city. But once the police left, looting and scavenging started again.
The UN mission responsible for security in Haiti lost at least 40 its 9 000 members when its headquarters collapsed in Tuesday’s quake. The United Nations confirmed that its mission chief, Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, and his deputy, Brazilian Luiz Carlos da Costa were killed.
Russians rescue girls
Even four days after the 7.0 magnitude quake, aftershocks were felt every few hours in the capital, terrifying survivors and sending rubble and dust tumbling from buildings.
Showing the need to not give up on rescue efforts, a Russian team pulled out two Haitian girls still alive — nine-year-old Olon Remi and 11-year-old Senviol Ovri — from the ruins of a house, a Reuters photographer said.
US rescuers worked through the night to dig out survivors from one collapsed supermarket where as many as 100 people could have been trapped inside. They were about to give up, when they were told a supermarket cashier had managed to call someone in Miami to say she was still alive inside.
Trucks piled with corpses have been ferrying bodies to hurriedly excavated mass graves outside the city, but thousands of bodies still are believed buried under rubble.
Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime said about 50 000 bodies had already been collected and that the final death toll will likely be between 100 000 and 200 000.
Dozens of bloated bodies were still dumped in the yard outside the main hospital on Saturday, decomposing in the sun. The hospital gardens were a mass of beds with injured people, with makeshift drips hanging from trees.
The weakened Haitian government is in no position to handle the crisis alone. The quake destroyed the presidential palace and knocked out communications and power. President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive are living and working in the judicial police headquarters.
Hillary Clinton told Haitians the United States will ensure their country emerges “stronger and better” from the disaster.
“We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead,” she said after meeting Preval at Port-au-Prince airport.
She flew in on a Coast Guard transport plane that brought in supplies and was to return with evacuated Americans.
The US State Department confirmed that 15 Americans died the earthquake, including one of its employees in Haiti.
Dozens of countries have sent planes with rescue teams and supplies. Planes and ships arrived with search dogs, tents, doctors, food and telecom teams, but faced a bottleneck at Port-au-Prince’s small airport.
“It’s like getting a billiard ball through a straw,” US Vice-President Joseph Biden said at a south Florida airbase.
The American Red Cross said 50-bed field hospitals and water purification equipment that were rerouted to neighbouring Dominican Republic arrived by truck convoy on Saturday, allowing it to start distributing water and first aid in Port-au-Prince.
Air traffic control in Port-au-Prince, hampered by damage to the airport’s tower, was taken over by the US military with backup from a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier offshore.
The USS Carl Vinson with 19 helicopters arrived off Haiti on Friday, opening a second significant channel to deliver help. Navy helicopters had begun taking water ashore and ferrying injured people to a field hospital near the airport.
The US military aimed to have 10 000 troops on the ground in Haiti and in ships offshore by Monday.
The Pan-American Health Organisation said at least eight hospitals and health centers in Port-au-Prince had collapsed or sustained damage and were unable to function.
The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, will visit Haiti on Monday and attend a donors preparatory meeting in the Dominican Republic to start talking about Haiti’s reconstruction needs, a bank spokesperson said. – Reutes