First Lady Visits Quake-Ravaged Haiti

Three months after a devastating earthquake, first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, made an unannounced stop in Haiti Tuesday. They viewed earthquake damage and camps for the homeless — meeting children and promising continued aid from the U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And while rescue work is just beginning there in China, recovery efforts continue in Haiti. Haitians got a surprise visit, yesterday, from first lady Michelle Obama. She was accompanied by the vice president's wife, Jill Biden. They wanted to see how Haiti is coping. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Port-au-Prince.

CARRIE KAHN: The first lady's helicopter circled the huge homeless encampments surrounding the heavily damaged presidential palace before touching down on the expansive green grass in front of the once-majestic building.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

KAHN: She was greeted warmly by Haiti's president and first lady, but turned somber and struggled for words when asked by reporters to describe her first impression of the immense devastation.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: It's powerful. The devastation is definitely powerful.

KAHN: The mood turned much brighter at a nearby art school where dozens of children sang welcome, welcome, and hip-hip hooray upon her arrival. Mrs. Obama clapped, danced and sang with the kids.

Unidentified children: (Singing) Welcome, (unintelligible), welcome, (unintelligible), welcome.

(Soundbite of applause)

KAHN: The school known as The Children's Place was set up by Haitian First Lady Elizabeth Preval after the devastating January 12th earthquake. Nine hundred children a day come to paint, dance and do art projects; 2,000 are given a meal. Nearly all live across the street in the encampment known as Champ de Mars, which is now home to nearly 30,000 people.

Unidentified children: (Singing in Creole)

(Soundbite of applause)

KAHN: Several of the children performed a play wearing bright red tank tops and long golden skirts. They held up pictures of what they said a reconstructed Haiti needs - schools, hospitals, justice and solidarity.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Creole)

KAHN: Nineteen-year-old Ralph Milord(ph) teaches the children dance at the center.

Mr. RALPH MILORD (Teacher): (Creole spoken)

KAHN: He says it means so much to everyone that such an important person came to show them support. Walking the streets around the largest tent city in the capital, Mrs. Obama smiled and waved to hundreds of people pressed up against police barricades. One man shouted at reporters to make sure the cameras turned around and looked at the overcrowded and inhumane conditions they were all living in.

At a nearby Episcopal high school visited by the first lady, Nadia Seville(ph) said she hoped Mrs. Obama brought aid with her.

Ms. NADIA SEVILLE: (Creole spoken)

KAHN: Seville lives in a tent with her six children on the grounds of the school and says there is very little food given to them. The school is being rebuilt, but Seville says her children have missed so much and need their education.

Mrs. Obama is not the first famous American to visit post-earthquake Haiti, but she is definitely one of the most popular. President Barack Obama is highly regarded throughout the Caribbean.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KAHN: International aid workers and U.N. staffers went wild when the first lady stepped onto a makeshift stage in a supply hangar at the United Nations logistic base. She praised the crowd for their work and said she hopes her visit puts Haiti back in the international spotlight.

Ms. OBAMA: The road ahead, as you know, is not going to be easy and it's not going to be quick, but I heard a wonderful Haitian proverb that says: little by little, the bird builds its nest.

KAHN: And, Mrs. Obama said, with everyone working together, there is hope that little by little tomorrow will be better than today.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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