Logistical Nightmare Keeps Aid From Haitians' Hands Aid is pouring into Haiti as officials assess the magnitude of what one U.S. general calls "a disaster of epic proportions." But logistical bottlenecks are keeping much of the aid from reaching stricken people in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, or in surrounding areas that were just as hard-hit.
NPR logo In Haiti, Desperation Mounts As Bottlenecks Slow Aid

In Haiti, Desperation Mounts As Bottlenecks Slow Aid

Prayers of thanksgiving mixed with mounting cries of desperation in Haiti's earthquake-shattered capital, Port-au-Prince, on Sunday. While dozens gathered for an open air Mass beside the ruins of the city's cathedral, logistical bottlenecks continued to keep much of the aid pouring into the country from reaching victims.

Even when aid was delivered, there was not yet enough security in place to prevent chaotic scuffles over water and food. U.S. military air traffic controllers have brought some order to the landing and unloading process at the capital's small airport, but officials say the problem now is getting aid safely and fairly distributed in the streets of the ruined city.

Officials worry that mounting hunger and thirst could trigger violent struggles for survival among desperate people roaming the city.

Although supplies and heavy equipment have been slow to arrive, fast-moving international rescue teams are still freeing people who've been entombed for days in collapsed buildings. U.S. and international appeals for aid are growing, as officials assess what one U.S. general calls "a disaster of epic proportions." The Red Cross is calling for $100 million to cover emergency relief and long-term assistance to Haiti over the next three years.

On-Air Coverage

Though there's still no firm estimate of the death toll from the quake, officials now say the human losses are likely to rise above 100,000, approaching the greatest disasters of the past two decades.

More Survivors Dug From The Debris

United Nations spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs says that as of Sunday morning, there were more than 1,700 trained rescue workers searching through the broken slabs of concrete for survivors. Although it's now the fifth day since the disaster struck, Byrs says mild weather conditions mean that victims who are still alive could survive for as long as six days.

She says more than 40 teams with about 160 search dogs are now at work, and more are on the way.

NPR's Jackie Northam is traveling with one of those teams, a mixed group of Spanish and Icelandic rescue workers who are moving among the flattened buildings, wherever there are reports of people trapped. The rescuers send in search dogs and listen for signs of human life amid the still-unstable wreckage.

The Reuters news agency reports that U.S. and Turkish search teams dug three people from the rubble of a supermarket early Sunday morning, including a 7-year-old Haitian girl, a Haitian man and an American woman. Although they were disoriented after their long entombment, witnesses said the three did not appear to be seriously injured.

Homeless Survivors Face Despair

Despite the individual successes though, most victims of the disaster are still on their own. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who visited Port-au-Prince on Sunday, said the U.N. is now feeding about 40,000 people a day, and hopes to increase that number to 1 million over the next two weeks.

But many people are going hungry. NPR's Jason Beaubien says many people are living in public parks or empty lots, either because their homes were destroyed, or because they fear returning to unstable houses that are still shaken by aftershocks.

Beaubien spoke with one woman, Malia Yvette, who was slumped near the wreckage of her house, which still held the bodies of three of her family members. Yvette, who used to sell vegetables at a market, says she now has nothing to her name but the dress she is wearing and an empty grain sack.

Prayers Amid The Rubble

Across Port-au-Prince, religious faithful held Sunday services, many near the ruins of their houses of worship. At the city's collapsed cathedral, Father Eric Toussaint called on survivors to give thanks that they were spared.

NPR's Beaubien says about a hundred people gathered to hear Toussaint say, "Even if our cathedral falls ... it doesn't mean that our church is destroyed. The church is us."

A second priest, Father Edwin St. Louis, ended the service by telling congregants that he couldn't wish them a nice day; he said he could only tell them to be strong.

Help Begins To Reach Outlying Areas

The rescue team that NPR's Northam is traveling with is currently in a town close to the epicenter of the quake. Speaking from Leogane, about 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Northam told NPR's Guy Raz that the town is about 80 percent destroyed.

Northam said there are signs that victims are still alive in the wreckage of a local school, and that residents have been working on their own to free those who are trapped. She said that although the devastation is greater in Leogane, the atmosphere seems less hostile than it does in some parts of Port-au-Prince.

Aid Is On The Doorstep, But Can't Get In

The magnitude 7.0 quake that wreaked such havoc on the people of Haiti has also made it cruelly difficult to help the survivors. The airport at Port-au-Prince is too small and ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of aid flights that are ready to deliver medical aid and food.

Some planes loaded with rescue teams, doctors and equipment have been delayed or diverted. The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders issued a statement Sunday urging that its cargo planes be given priority for landing in Port-au-Prince.

The group said that despite guarantees by the United Nations and the U.S. Defense Department, a Doctors Without Borders plane carrying an inflatable surgical hospital was not allowed to land in the Haitian capital Saturday. It said the flight was diverted to an airport in the neighboring Dominican Republic, from which supplies will be trucked to Port-au-Prince, forcing a delay of at least 24 hours in getting the facility up and running.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that since the U.S. military has taken over air-traffic control at the airport, planes are landing and unloading more quickly and more efficiently than in the first days. Kahn says officials are still contending with the problem of getting that material out of the airport and into the city, where many streets are blocked by debris.

The quake did severe damage to the docks and cranes in the Port-au-Prince harbor, making it difficult to deliver aid from ships. USAID estimates that it will take at least 60 days to get the port operable again. Right now, there's no way for fuel tankers to offload the millions of gallons of fuel needed for the rescue effort.

U.S. officials say they are sending a container ship from Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday, with capacity for off-loading cargo without a port.

Desperation Brings The Threat Of Violence

As the days pass without food and water, looting is reported to be on the rise in Port-au-Prince. NPR's Northam saw looters carrying off bags of rice from wrecked stores in one neighborhood, and rescue teams have been warned of the danger of violence in so-called red zones of the city.

Thousands of prisoners escaped the National Penitentiary after the quake, including some of the gangsters who once controlled the city's largest slums, such as the sprawling district called Cite Soleil. Officials fear that they may re-establish themselves amid the chaos of the disaster.

Wire services reported that some residents were apparently taking the law into their own hands, lynching, shooting or beating suspected thieves. The Associated Press says that two men died in the Delma neighborhood after having been beaten and bound. Witnesses said the men were escaped convicts.

Death Numbers Rise

The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that around 50,000 people have died in the quake, but other official sources are beginning to put the number higher. Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said around 20,000 bodies have already been recovered. He said the final death toll will probably be a "minimum" of 100,000.

That would put the earthquake in the same horrific category as the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, believed to have killed at least 138,000 people, and the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004, which left nearly 230,000 dead.

The difference is that those disasters were spread over fairly wide swaths of territory, making it easier to get aid to the hardest-hit areas. Haiti's dead, injured and destitute are packed into a comparatively small area, with few points of access.