Haiti official says mass graves now hold 70,000 quake dead

Miami HeraldJanuary 17, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Medical assistance, search and rescue teams, fresh water and food began reaching more Haitians on Sunday as logistics improved at the airport and international groups coordinated relief efforts.

Even as the likelihood of finding survivors grew slimmer, search and rescue teams from Israel, Turkey, the United States and elsewhere continued working around the clock. A total of 62 people, most of them Haitian citizens, have been rescued since the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, White House officials said Sunday afternoon.

Three people were rescued from the Caribbean Market early Sunday as rescue teams searched for more survivors at eight other locations, Tim Callaghan, senior adviser for USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said on a telephone news conference.

Callaghan said time was running out to find survivors, but that the Haitian government would signal when the rescue phase of operations would end.

"The further away we get from the event,'' he said, ``the more difficult and challenging it is to find people alive.''

One rescue on Sunday took place at the collapsed U.N. mission headquarters in the capital, where rescuers freed a Danish worker from the rubble about 15 minutes after an emotional visit from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

``I am here with a message of hope that help is on the way,'' Moon told a group of men and boys shouting that they needed food, water and work, the Associated Press reported.

Ban said the U.N. is feeding 40,000 people, and expects that figure to rise to 2 million within a month.

He called the quake ``one of the most serious humanitarian crises in decades.''

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive confirmed on Sunday that a crew of 60 government trucks had collected 70,000 dead for mass burial, though the figure includes only bodies collected in Port-au-Prince and nearby Leogane. There is no official count for deaths in Jacmel, a city on the southeastern coast.

The U.S. State Department confirmed on Sunday that 16 Americans died in the Haiti quake. An estimated 2,000 Americans have been evacuated.

While mortuary teams collect the dead, relief workers struggled to coordinate the arrival and distribution of food, water, medicine and other supplies -- sometimes in conditions of deteriorating security.

White House Communications Director Denis McDonough, speaking at a press conference, said the 9,000-strong security forces under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti have had ``a robust presence'' in the city.

``That's not to say security is not an issue,'' he added. ``But we do feel we have the resources to allow us to continue to move forward.''

About 100 U.S troops with the 82nd Airborne are already on the ground in Haiti, and another 500 were scheduled to arrive by Monday to help with security and distribution of aid, McDonough said.

To date, more than 600,000 humanitarian rations have been brought into Haiti, Callaghan said, adding that 50,000 people were served meals in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. He said that 250,000 liters of water also are being distributed at 52 different points.

Additionally, a ship carrying 57,500 pounds of food arrived in Haiti on Sunday, Callaghan said, though it was unclear how the supplies would be unloaded and delivered.

``We are trying to work hard to increase the number of areas where individuals can go and receive food and supplies,'' he said. Callaghan said Haitian radio has been announcing relief distribution sites.

At Port-au-Prince's airport, where the control tower and terminal have been condemned due to damage, U.S. military officials said they have established communication systems, and coordinated take-offs and departures to maximize the arrival and distribution of food, water and medicine.

Col. Buck Elton, commander of the U.S. military's Special Operations Command South Haiti, said that, since taking control of the airport in Port-au-Prince about 24 hours after the earthquake, ``we've controlled approximately 600 take-offs and landings from this 10,000-foot strip that normally operates three aircarft out of it on a daily basis.''

Elton said about 50 flights total have been diverted for lack of space for airplanes to land or park to unload their cargo.

``What we set up here would be similar to running a major airport that only has a certain amount of terminals or certain amount of cargo space, without real communications,'' he said.

U.S. military personnel also have set up a medical facility at the airport, where 24 people have been treated, including 16 American citizens with crush injuries, Elton said. More than 2,000 American citizens have been evacuated through the airport, he added.

Additionally, McDonough said, about 150 Haitian orphans have been flown to the U.S. and another five were awaiting transport on Sunday. He did not say where the orphans were taken.

As rescue and relief efforts continue, there have been reports of sporadic violence and tumultuous crowds desperate for supplies slowing the distribution of food, water and medicine.

Shooting in a Petionville slum forced a convoy carrying enough food for 40,000 people to turn around at noon, as soon as it left the United Nations base near the Port-au-Prince airport.

``We just learned there's shooting in Peguyville [a neighborhood of Petionville] and we had to come back,'' said Alejandro Lopez-Chicheri, spokesman for the UN's World Food Program. ``These are the conditions we are working in.''

The food agency is now planning to get the trucks of high-energy biscuits as close to a slum as possible.

Aid workers said they plan to distribute the goods at Place Boyer, a Petionville park-turned-tent-city, occupied by hundreds of homeless people.

But getting supplies to people isolated by the earthquake's damage was proving more difficult, and urgent.

About one mile from the airport, where planeloads of donations wait to be distributed, about 80 elderly people in the quake-damaged Port-au-Prince Municipal Hospice wait with no food or water, the Associated Press reported Sunday.

One man has died, and Administrator Jean Emmanuel said if no help arrives, ``others won't live until tonight.''

Emmanuel said Sunday that even small quantities of drinking water or food would save lives if it arrived before the end of the day.

U.S. military officials said they were giving priority to distributing water in Haiti, but that their efforts have been slowed by tumultuous crowds desperate for the supplies.

``We've had incidents of violence that impede our ability to support the government of Haiti and answer the challenges that this country faces,'' Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, commander of the U.S. military relief effort in Haiti, told the Associated Press.

U.N. officials began to distribute food at the National Palace briefly on Saturday, but the crowds got out of control.

Kim Bolduc, deputy special representative for the U.N.'s mission, told reporters that the next food distribution wouldn't take place until Monday as the agency still had to identify sites secure enough to do so.

But as the U.N. mission in Haiti waited, the organization's food agency, World Food Program, continued its efforts.

As of Sunday morning, U.S. military officials said, helicopters and other aircraft had delivered 130,000 daily rations and 70,000 bottles of water into Port-au-Prince. An additional 600,000 daily rations are due to arrive in the coming days.

With drinking water in short supply, U.S. military officials said they were counting on two reverse osmosis water purifiers in Haiti to make drinking water. Another four additional purifiers were scheduled to arrive Monday.

Tattered, hungry but clinging to hope, many Haitians gathered early Sunday to pray.

Amid the ruins of the National Cathedral, many wondered when more help would arrive.

They kneeled on rocky debris, raised their arms in prayer, sang aloud in the roofless sanctuary of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Port-au-Prince.

Many wore face masks, shielding themselves from the stench of days with no running water. Others wore their Sunday best.

All came to renew a sense of hope.

``Last night the preacher told everybody on the street to come pray. We have a lot to pray for. We're not getting food or water,'' said Sully Dorisme, a deportee who lived in New Jersey for 27 years.

``Nobody has come talk to us. Somebody should come talk to us to give us hope,'' she said.

``I am praying for people to get help.''

The mass went on for several hours, with more people gathering as the megaphone carried the priest's voice over an otherwise silence that was occasionally broken by the whir of helicopters.

``My message today was a message of faith,'' said Fr. Glandas Marie-Eric Toussaint. ``We live with hope because they say everything that happens happened because God wanted it. That is the message. God is there to help rebuild. ``I was very happy to see my parishioners after four days,'' he said.

Raymond Narcisse, a worshipper, said he was trying to organize volunteer crews but could find no supplies with which to help.

``We need the force of God,'' he said. ``It's hard, but we can do it.''

Asked if the government was taking care of his parishioners, Toussaint said ``not yet.''

``The government is overwhelmed, but not just today -- for many years.''

(McClatchy Washington correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Haiti.)

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service