NPR logo Relief Efforts Ramping Up In Haiti's Capital

Relief Efforts Ramping Up In Haiti's Capital

Dr. Henri Ford uses a bullhorn to spread the word about a U.S. medical clinic outside the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince. Ford, who grew up in Haiti's capital, says the city is now nearly unrecognizable to him. John Poole/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
John Poole/NPR

U.S.-led efforts to get food and water to hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors in Haiti were beginning to come together Thursday, just as the search for anyone left alive under the rubble was winding down.

Many relief workers turned instead to the grim task of preparing additional mass graves on a hillside north of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The European Commission says 80,000 people have already been buried in mass graves, an estimated 2 million are homeless, and 250,000 are in need of urgent aid.

More Aid Getting Into Port-au-Prince

U.N. peacekeepers and U.S. troops have been helping keep order around aid deliveries and clinics in the capital, which seemed relatively calm Thursday.

On-Air Coverage

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division said they handed out 32,000 bottles of water and more than 8,000 meals Wednesday — the first major relief distribution in Port-au-Prince. They said they hoped to duplicate the success of the distribution point, which was set up on a golf course, in other parts of the city.

"We are hitting our stride finally, and we're getting out everything that is getting to us. We're pushing it out to the Haitian people," Capt. Hank Coleman, a forward support commander with the 82nd Airborne's Haiti contingent, told NPR's Jason Beaubien.

Air Force Gen. Doug Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said Thursday that the U.S. had delivered 1.4 million bottles of water and 700,000 meals so far.

The Navy's Comfort, a hospital ship, has also steamed into Port-au-Prince's harbor to provide medical help and assist aid delivery.

Aid Flights Still Backlogged

Despite the progress, Fraser said there's a massive backlog of 1,400 aid flights waiting to get into the capital, with only 120 to 140 able to land each day.

The U.S. military planned to open three more airports: one in the Haitian city of Jacmel and two in neighboring Dominican Republic. Fraser said he considered creating an "unimproved runway" at Port-au-Prince but decided against it to focus on shoring up damaged facilities at the city's port. Coast Guard engineers said Thursday that at least three vessels have now been able to dock.

For now, many relief flights are being diverted to Dominican Republic, said NPR's Tamara Keith, reporting from the capital Santo Domingo.

The global shipping company DHL is helping with cargo logistics at the Santo Domingo airport. The company's director of humanitarian affairs, Chris Weeks, said he'd like to see the Dominican military transport diverted supplies to Haiti. Instead, he said, private brokers are charging $2,000 for each truckload.

"I'm frustrated. I can see that there's so much goodwill out there to expend to the situation, and yet it can't be forced down this narrow pipe," Weeks said. "Somebody needs to expand the pipe, and that's got to be a political decision."

Medical Clinics Are Overwhelmed

Fitz Longchamp, the chief of staff to Haitian President Rene Preval, said Thursday that 400,000 survivors in the capital will be moved to temporary camps outside town once new camps are ready, in a week to 10 days. Hundreds of tent cities have sprung up around Port-au-Prince, and medical workers are concerned about sanitary conditions and the spread of disease.

Medical workers said clinics already have a nearly two-week backlog of untreated injuries.

"The next health risk could include outbreaks of diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases among hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in overcrowded camps with poor or nonexistent sanitation," Dr. Greg Elder, deputy operations manager for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti, told The Associated Press.

The death toll is estimated at 200,000, according to Haitian government figures relayed by the European Commission.

Getting To U.S. Not Easy

Since the earthquake, Haitians have gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy, desperate to get a flight out of their shattered country. Thursday, it was estimated the line had grown to 2,000 people. Many may be in for a disappointment.

"There's a rumor making its way around the capital that any Haitian with a relative in the U.S. can join his or her family," NPR's John Burnett reported. "But U.S. officials say only Haitians with U.S. passports are being airlifted to the States at U.S. government expense."

Lost or buried passports are not a problem, Burnett said, because anyone with an active passport will be in the U.S. database.

Speeding Some Adoptions

It normally takes three years for an American to adopt a child from Haiti, NPR's Jennifer Ludden reported. But considering the circumstances, U.S. officials are trying to speed the process for up to 900 orphans whose prospective parents have already been identified.

As the plight of children orphaned by Jan. 12's magnitude 7 quake becomes more widely known, the State Department is urging U.S. citizens not to travel to the Caribbean country to try to rescue them.

And for an untold number of other children left abandoned by the earthquake, it's important that they stay in Haiti, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said.

"We remain focused on family reunification," Chandler said, adding that officials "must be vigilant not to separate children from relatives in Haiti who are still alive but displaced — or to unknowingly assist criminals who traffic in children in such desperate times."

A Dutch adoption agency said Thursday that a mercy flight carrying 106 adopted Haitian children was on its way to the Netherlands from Port-au-Prince. The children on board the plane were all in the process of being adopted and already had been matched to Dutch parents before the quake.

Doubt Over Haitian Government's Capability

The Maison des Enfants de Dieu Orphanage in Port-au-Prince holds more than 150 infants. Staff members had to move the children outside after an aftershock Wednesday morning. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
David Gilkey/NPR

The Maison des Enfants de Dieu Orphanage in Port-au-Prince holds more than 150 infants. Staff members had to move the children outside after an aftershock Wednesday morning.

David Gilkey/NPR

Many Haitians are suspicious of their government's ability to handle an influx of aid, welcoming the presence of foreign troops to distribute supplies.

In Port-au-Prince's Morne Lazare neighborhood, Theronier Luis Thomas told NPR's Beaubien that he's afraid relief funds will be stolen if they are given directly to the Haitian government. "The international community has to accompany the Haitian government in rebuilding this country," he said.

It's a sentiment echoed in the city's Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhood, where NPR's Corey Flintoff reported that residents have yet to receive foreign aid.

Resident Besy Wilson, the self-styled leader of a local rescue effort, has taken matters into his own hands. He says his group has organized rescue efforts, first-aid and body removal as best it can, relying on donations from local people.

Wilson says there are still many corpses decaying in the rubble that searchers were unable to extract because they lack heavy earth-moving equipment. The sum total of the group's medical supplies include a cardboard carton with two rolls of gauze bandages and a dozen or so containers of over-the-counter medicines.

"Not, not the government," Wilson said when asked where funds should be sent. "Give it to neighborhood groups that are close to the problem."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report