Friday, January 15, 2010
Countries and relief organisations around the world are sending aid to Haiti, which was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Tuesday, affecting up to three million people, most of them in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Relief efforts, however, have been hampered by damaged or destroyed infrastructure, lack of shelter, and communications difficulties.
As of today, at least 300,000 people were estimated to be homeless in the capital, according to the United Nations; the organisation reports that one in ten buildings completely collapsed due to the tremors and resulting aftershocks. The UN said it believes 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed by the quake, while Haitian President Rene Preval said that seven thousand bodies were buried in a mass grave.
Port-au-Prince’s main airport remained open as of today, and relief airplanes were arriving faster than they could be unloaded, prompting fears that planes could run out of fuel while waiting their turn to land. As a result, all non-military flights out of the airport were restricted. Air traffic controllers from the US were present to help handle the flow.
The main port, meanwhile, was severely damaged, and unable to handle any cargo.
To see more images related to the disaster, you may wish to look at the companion article Haitian earthquake: in pictures.
Even with the amount of aid coming in, it is proving difficult to deliver it where it is needed; many roads have been blocked by rubble. Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri, a senior spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), commented: “The roads, many of them are still to be opened, and on the ones that are open there are still people concentrated on the sides of the roads.” He described Haiti as being “completely on the ground”.
“This is a logistical challenge. Before the earthquake struck we were already assisting one million people here, we are considering it will be at least double that after this earthquake,” he told the Al Jazeera news agency.
The WFP has estimated that two million people will need food aid; however, only four thousand have so far been fed.
“The physical destruction is so great that physically getting from point A to B with the supplies is not an easy task,” said a WFP spokeswoman in Geneva at a news conference.
Transporting supplies was made even harder due to lack of communications. Telephone lines were down. “There have been a lot of criticism from local authorities about the relief efforts, but in all fairness, if we could catch a break and get some communication up and running, things would go a lot faster,” commented Louis Belanger, spokesman with the humanitarian aid group Oxfam International.
Looting has also been an issue. Delfin Antonio Rodriguez, the rescue commander from adjacent Dominican Republic, said to the Agency France-Presse news agency earlier today that “[o]ur biggest problem is insecurity. Yesterday they tried to hijack some of our trucks. Today we were barely able to work in some places because of that.”
Elisabeth Byrs, a UN humanitarian spokeswoman in Geneva described the desperation of those in the capital. “People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation. If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat.”
The WFP initially reported that its warehouses in the capital were looted, but this was later retracted. WFP spokeswoman Caroline Hurford told the BBC that “[a]pparently there were unconfirmed reports of looting taking place but once our teams got down to the dockside they were able to see that there was some mistake.”
The earthquake also destroyed Port-au-Prince’s main prison. According to International Red Cross spokesman Marcal Izard, 4,000 inmates escaped the jail and are now on the city streets. “They obviously took advantage of this disaster,” he said.
Haitian police were “not visible at all,” according to a UN spokesman, probably because they had to deal with lost family members and homes, further exacerbating the situation. Around 3,000 international UN peacekeeping troops were present to try to maintain law and order in lieu of the local police force.
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According to a reporter for Al Jazeera, frustration among Port-au-Prince’s residents was increasing because they were not receiving enough help, and there was an exodus out of the city to try and find areas with more supplies. “A lot of people have simply grown tired of waiting for those emergency workers to get to them,” said Sebastian Walker. “Thousands of people are streaming out of the city towards the provinces to try to find supplies of food and water, supplies that are running out in the city.”
A spokesman for the Brazilian-commanded UN peacekeeping force, David Wimhurst, also commented that “unfortunately, they’re slowly getting more angry and impatient. I fear, we are all aware that the situation is getting more tense as the poorest people who need so much, are waiting for deliveries. I think tempers might be frayed.”
Photographer Shaul Schwarz for the TIME magazine reported seeing at least two roadblocks downtown, made of rocks and corpses. “They are starting to block the roads with bodies. It’s getting ugly out there. People are fed up with getting no help,” he said.
“We hear on the radio that rescue teams are coming from the outside, but nothing is coming,” said one resident, Jean-Baptiste Lafontin Wilfried, as quoted by the BBC.
“We need food. The people are suffering. My neighbors and friends are suffering,” said another resident, Sylvain Angerlotte, aged 22, as quoted by the Associated Press. “We don’t have money. We don’t have nothing to eat. We need pure water.”
Due to lack of buildings or shelter, many relief members were facing the same difficulties as were residents. “Even the aid workers themselves are sleeping in cars or in tents on the streets,” said Jamieson Davies, the international programmes director of the Caritas relief organisation, to Al Jazeera. She described the situation as being “extremely difficult”.