Obama Vows All-Out Rescue Effort In Haiti

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are feared dead in an earthquake that shattered buildings in Haiti's capital — from the presidential palace to hospitals, schools and the headquarters of the United Nations. President Obama called it a cruel tragedy for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and he's promising an all-out rescue effort.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

That's David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN mission in Port-au-Prince. And as he mentioned the UN headquarters was severely damaged. Other relief organizations are struggling to help out in Haiti, despite damage to their offices and staff dead or missing.

President Obama called the earthquake a cruel tragedy for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. He is promising an all out rescue effort.

For more on the U.S. relief operation, here's NPR's by Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Daylight brought images of devastation as well as the first glimmer of good news in Haiti. U.S. embassy officials found the airport in better shape than expected, so relief supplies could start to flow in. The U.S. sent a disaster assessment team from the U.S. Agency for International Development, rescue teams with specially trained dogs from Virginia and California, and President Obama called for a swift coordinated and aggressive effort to save lives in Haiti.

President BARACK OBAMA: The reports and images that we've seen of collapsed hospitals, crumbled homes, and men and women carrying their injured neighbors through the streets are truly heart-wrenching. Indeed, for a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible.

KELEMEN: He encouraged Americans to go to the White House Web site to find out how they can donate to aid groups on the ground. The State Department has a hotline for people seeking information about American citizens in Haiti. There are more than 45,000 Americans there, though only about a dozen have gone to the embassy to seek help, according to U.S. officials. While the U.S. embassy was spared, the United Nations suffered a devastating blow in yesterday's quake.

Unidentified Man: We need more people down here. We need more people down here.

KELEMEN: U.N. television showed rescuers pulling a few survivors from the collapsed U.N. headquarters at the Hotel Kristoff. By midday, many were still trapped and feared dead, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special representative to Haiti, a Tunisian diplomat, Hedi Annabi. Peacekeepers are still doing their job though, according to Alain Le Roy, who runs the U.N. Peacekeeping Office in New York.

Mr. ALAIN LE ROY (U.N. Peacekeeping Office, New York): We have 3,000 forces already in Port-au-Prince. We have more forces, of course, in the country, but in Port-au-Prince itself, we have 3,000 forces. They are there to secure, of course, the airport, the port, the main buildings and patrolling in the cities. That is already happening.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is sending communications equipment to Haiti to help the U.N. and the Haitian government, which also saw several buildings collapse. An aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, has left Norfolk, Virginia, and is expected to arrive in the coming day with helicopters to assist in rescue and relief operations. Southern Command General Douglas Fraser says a large deck amphibious ship with about 2,000 Marines on board may also be sent to Haiti.

General DOUGLAS FRASER (Chief, Southern Command): We're leaning forward to provide as much capability as quickly as we can to respond to whatever the need is when we get there.

KELEMEN: The newly sworn in administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, has taken a lead in coordinating the U.S. response. He says he is trying to move in all sorts of assets quickly with one immediate goal: to save lives.

Dr. RAJIV SHAH (Administrator, United States Agency for International Development): We have over-flight data right now that's getting better by the moment, that's allowing us to get a sense of where the destruction is and what the priorities ought to be. And our goals will be to save as many lives as possible in the first 72 hours because that is the window in which that is a possible outcome.

KELEMEN: And he says he is already thinking about how much more aid will be needed in the weeks ahead for the impoverished nation to overcome its latest natural disaster.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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