U.S. opens Haiti port as officials seek housing for survivors

Miami HeraldJanuary 22, 2010 

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Ten days after Haiti's earthquake leveled the capital city and destroyed the nation's principal seaport, the U.S. Army reopened part of the harbor Thursday, easing the strain on the airport, which has been choked by around-the-clock aid deliveries.

The news came as the Haitian government and the international community continued their struggle to find shelter for the estimated 1.5 million left homeless by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed as many as 200,000.

While the world has rushed to Haiti's aid, pledging more than $1 billion in support, the ruined infrastructure of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area has kept much of the help at bay.

On Thursday, Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said more than 1,400 flights were backed up, waiting for permission to land in Port-au-Prince.

But with the seaport now operating at 30 percent capacity, officials said they could unload 100 to 150 containers per day.

The United States has 20 ships off Haiti's coast and has been airlifting supplies to four central hubs established by the United Nations. From there, supplies are distributed to 100 different points.

As of Thursday, Fraser said, ``We have distributed 1.4 million bottles of water, over 700,000 meals and roughly 22,000 pounds of medical supplies'' directly to the Haitian people.

Aiding those efforts are three new runways, one in the costal town of Jacmel and two in the Dominican Republic.

An extra 3,000 U.S. troops are due to arrive in Haiti on Saturday to join the more than 13,000 U.S. service members already on the ground and offshore.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers continued to push humanitarian measures to aid the island. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said an estimated 200 Haitian children with treatable injuries would be granted quick passage to the United States for life-saving medical procedures.

``We must help the most vulnerable among us and that includes our neighbors in Haiti where children are in dire need right now,'' Nelson said in a release.

Previously, the government had extended Temporary Protected Status to Haitians living illegally in the United States, and paved the way for speedier adoptions.

Eighty orphans were due to arrive Thursday night at Miami International Airport.

Dubbed the ``Haiti 80,'' the majority of the children were adopted by American parents through Bethany Christian Services, a U.S.-based adoption agency licensed in more than 30 states.

Bethany secured the release of the children by working with its orphanage partner in Haiti, God's Littlest Angels, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials.

The evacuations come as more than half a million people are huddled in almost 450 tent cities that have sprung up around Port-au-Prince. Only three of the encampments have access to drinking water, the International Organization for Migration said.

Buses have been taking residents from the encampments to relatively untouched cities, including St. Marc, Gonaïve and Les Cayes. Haitian Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime told the Agence France Press news agency that as many as 400,000 people would be relocated outside the capital.

Meanwhile, a battalion of Brazilian troops deployed by the United Nations mission in Haiti were leveling land in the capital suburb of Croix des Bouquets, where the Inter-American Development Bank plans to build permanent housing for 30,000 people.

International Organization for Migration officials said the homeless would be hired to help build the houses under a food-for-work arrangement.

U.S. forces have set up 100 tents at the Guantánamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba as a rudimentary humanitarian relief site that could house as many as 1,000 Haitians if earthquake victims start fleeing their nation, a senior military official said. U.S. Coast Guard officials said they had detected no evidence of Haitians trying to flee their country by sea. They said both the relief effort and the presence of a ring of ships and aircraft off the island's shores may have deterred victims from trying to leave.

Last week's earthquake destroyed 13 of the nation's 15 government ministries, according to USAID, including the National Parliament. On Thursday. 15 Haitian senators -- three short of a quorum -- met for the first time since the earthquake at the National Police Academy. They called on Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive to appear before them to answer questions about the slow delivery of aid.

Responding by e-mail, Bellerive said he would be unable to meet them until he returns from Monday's donors conference in Canada.

With the hope of finding survivors fading, some search and rescue teams were reportedly packing their bags Thursday, but others still scoured the rubble.

Lt. Charles McDermott, with Florida Task Force 2, said his team was out Thursday morning after receiving an e-mail about an elderly woman thought to be alive and trapped in a building.

The likelihood of finding survivors dwindles with each passing day, but McDermott said the team is motivated by the more than 120 rescues made since Jan. 12.

``As the time goes by, of course the percentage goes down,'' he said. ``But as long as they keep finding individuals trapped in voids -- amazing situations -- we're still keeping up hope.''

That hope was particularly important to members of Lynn University of Boca Raton.

The school still has four students and two faculty members unaccounted for in Haiti, and presumably trapped beneath the rubble of the Hotel Montana.

On Thursday, University President Kevin M. Ross asked that every missing American -- dead or alive -- be found.

``We hope [rescue efforts] will continue until there are no signs of life,'' Ross said. ``And beyond that, if it turns into a recovery operation, that the families of all those in the Hotel Montana and beyond will be assured their loved ones will be returned.''

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