U.S. Troops Try For Order At Distribution Centers

One week after a powerful earthquake shattered Haiti, humanitarian aid is getting to the people. But the distribution of food and water and other essentials is slow — and desperation is growing in the capital city and elsewhere. Officials hope security forces — United Nations, American and Haitian — can keep a lid on violence.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's what we know so far about another earthquake in Haiti: It measured a magnitude 6.1 this morning. That is a strong earthquake, though not nearly as powerful as last week's quake that destroyed so many buildings and lives. The quake did send people screaming into the streets and out of their damaged buildings this morning, and we're waiting to see if there is much more destruction. We are also waiting to see if security forces can keep the peace in Haiti over the coming days. Different parts of that job fall to the United Nations, the United States and Haitian security forces. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Port-au-Prince.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

JACKIE NORTHAM: At the bottom of a rolling hill, which takes in spectacular views of the capital Port-au-Prince, thousands of Haitians wait impatiently to pick up food and water. Normally, this is the ninth hole of golf course at one of the city's premier country clubs.

Now, it's a forward operating base for U.S. troops, the 82nd Airborne, and it's a distribution site for relief supplies. In the morning, a group of some 8,000 to 10,000 Haitians jostle to the front of the line while U.S. military helicopters shuttled in boxes of food and water.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

NORTHAM: Local officials organize the lines and hand out the supplies, but it's American soldiers who keep order, sometimes attempting French, one of the local languages.

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

NORTHAM: By late in the afternoon, the crowd on the side of the hill had swelled to about 25,000, and the food was gone. The crowd became rowdy, the situation tense.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

NORTHAM: Officials yelled to the crowd to come back tomorrow, but this did little to calm the situation. Extra soldiers moved down the hill in case things got too far out of hand. U.S. Captain John Hartsock, in charge of the distribution site, ordered his men to take three steps back from the crowd and sit down. It was a gamble, but it did the trick. Many in the crowd also sat down, and the angry mood subsided.

Hartsock said he's never seen anything like it.

Captain JOHN HARTSOCK (U.S. Army): I'm thinking about possibly - you know, maybe not tomorrow, but the next day - if we're not in the distribution plan, have them sit down right off the bat. As soon as they come up here, they're sitting down. We've tried different things. Sometimes it goes smooth, sometimes it doesn't go smooth, and it's just that adjusting.

NORTHAM: Flexibility, constantly adjusting to the situation, may be the best strategy for U.S. and other international forces brought in to provide relief to the millions of Haitians left hungry and homeless by last week's earthquake. Roughly 11,000 American service personnel are here, offshore, or on their way to help in the relief operation. That will include providing protection at the aid-distribution sites, and instilling a sense of security on the streets.

Andre Bouchard, the chief security officer with the U.N., says some areas of the capital city are difficult to control.

Mr. ANDRE BOUCHARD (Chief Security Officer, United Nations): The thing is that we don't have, currently, a going order to say that we can contain specific areas. We have a situation where you can have looting happening roughly anywhere in downtown. Those are - it's not like a mob that's moving around. It's some groups. It could be there with individuals...

NORTHAM: Bouchard says he fears things will quickly get worse if relief supplies don't reach the people. Still, in spite of the crisis that has gripped this city, there are small moments of normalcy.

(Soundbite of car horn)

NORTHAM: Driving down a main thoroughfare, you can see throngs of people on the streets, small markets opening, and men washing and buffing their cars. But it doesn't take long before reality returns, when you see foreign troops patrolling the street and the long lines at the aid distribution sites.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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