Large Food Handout Under Way In Haiti

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Relief supplies are flowing in to Port-au-Prince to help hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless by last week's earthquake. Food deliveries have been sporadic and have only been reaching a small portion of the people in need. The U.S. military is now the largest single-food provider in the devastated Haitian capital.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

Relief supplies are flowing into Port-au-Prince to help hundreds and thousands of people left homeless by last weeks earthquake. Survivors have been praising American soldiers for their help. Last night President Obama was asked by ABC Newss George Stephanopoulos if the U.S. could afford prolonged military aid.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think we can't afford not to do it because Haiti is our neighbor. I want to make sure that when America projects its power around the world, it's not seen only when it's fighting a war. It's got to also be able to help people in desperate need. And ultimately that will be good for us and that will be good for our national security over the long term.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. military is now distributing more food than other agencies, but the effort has not been without snags, and it may not be enough.

NPRs Jason Beaubien reports.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

JASON BEAUBIEN: A constant stream of U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopters and hulking Sea Stallion choppers ferry pallets of bottled water and MREs, meals ready to eat, into a golf course in Port-au-Prince. The 82nd Airborne has set up an aid distribution site on the slope of a country club. As choppers land, the soldiers bucket brigade the water and food to the side of the field. The aircraft lifts off and another one circles in to touch down.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

BEAUBIEN: The Americans then bring the supplies to Haitians, who hand it out to two long lines of people that flow up the hill. Three women - Gladys(ph) and Natasha Marvelous(ph) and their cousin, Placid Kati(ph) - have just gotten packets of MREs and two bottles of water each. They say they have no idea what's in the food packets.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The women says this is the first food aid they have received since the quake more than a week ago. Some people are so hungry that they tear into the MREs as soon as they get out of a line. The earthquake left hundreds of thousands of people across Port-au-Prince without homes, food or any way to make a living. The U.N. World Food Program has done some small scale food distribution in the streets, but this is the first and the only large scale food handout. The day before, the 82nd Airborne system broke down and they had to suspend the operation. They had run out of supplies and the site teetered on the brink of chaos as some 20,000 Haitians surged towards the soldiers on the hill. Yesterday, things went smoothly and they handed out food and water to 50 people a minute, from early morning until sun down.

Captain HANK COLEMAN (Forward Support Commander, 82nd Airborne): We're hitting our stride finally and we're getting out everything that comes to us, we are pushing it out to the Haitian people.

BEAUBIEN: Captain Hank Coleman is a forward support commander with the 82nd Airborne.

Capt. COLEMAN: The helicopters are actually coming so fast today, we were stuck unloading helicopters and then going down to the line to distribute. Its been very busy, but great.

BEAUBIEN: The 82nd Airborne handed out 32,000 bottles of water and more than 8,000 meal packets yesterday. They plan to ramp up distributions in other parts of the city soon. Away from the distribution site, people continue to pick through the rubble of their homes, searching for anything that might be salvageable in the debris. In the (unintelligible) neighborhood people say they are grateful for the international assistance thats starting to flow into Port-au-Prince but they say its not enough. Teronia Louis Thomas(ph) says its important that the international community oversees the aid operation because he says if money is given directly to the Haitian government, they'll steal it.

Mr. TERONIA LOUIS TOMAS: The international community has to accompany the Haitian government in rebuilding this country.

BEAUBIEN: Most of the Haitian government buildings toppled in the quake, and Tomas says the government, even when it was up and running, wasnt capable of handling a disaster of this scale.

Mr. TOMAS: You know, they havent been, you know, providing any (unintelligible) for years.

BEAUBIEN: Tomas and many other Haitians say they hope the U.S., the U.N. and other international bodies will have a strong presence in Haiti for years to come as the country attempts to recover.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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