A massive international relief effort for Haiti, led by the US, got under way in earnest yesterday. But it faced horrendous logistical problems after Tuesday's devastating earthquake that left tens of thousands of dead, with millions more injured and homeless, and shattered the infrastructure of the western hemisphere's poorest country.
"You will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten," President Barack Obama told the people of Haiti. "In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you," he said yesterday.
But in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, where bodies were piling up on the streets as morgues turned them away, refugees asked why the help had not yet arrived. According to eyewitnesses, some Haitians had even used corpses to set up roadblocks in the city as a protest to the delay.
"Is anyone coming? Is anything happening? Does anyone know?" one dazed Haitian woman asked Luke Renner, an American aid worker. "There's no information coming in," Mr Renner said last night. "There are hundreds of thousands of people trying to salvage what they can from their wrecked homes – and they don't know that anybody knows."
Logistical bottlenecks – the difficulties of getting basic emergency supplies like food, clean water, fuel, blankets and medical help to those who needed it – in an impoverished, disaster-prone country lacking the most basic infrastructure jeopardised the race to get help to survivors and the injured.
The main port where relief would normally arrive was heavily damaged, and the road into Port-au-Prince was buckled and impassable. In the city itself, many streets were blocked with rubble. The US authorities appear to have taken over the airport, but with a single strip it too was overwhelmed.
At one point yesterday a dozen planes were circling and waiting to land, and the US Federal Aviation Authority temporarily barred all flights into Haiti until the backlog was cleared. Medecins Sans Frontières reported that six out of seven charter flights bringing supplies and staff had been turned away, and a British search and rescue team was forced to return to the Dominican Republic. "We'd got to Haiti and were circling and circling over the airport but they wouldn't let us land," said Simon Cording, a rescue expert who was on the government-sponsored flight.
"If you ask me what I think of the Americans controlling airspace in Haiti, I want to kick their butt. The longer it takes us to land and start working, the more people will die. It's that simple."
As the vast scale of the rescue effort needed became clearer, Washington announced it was sending 2,200 marines and up to 3,500 troops to the island, as well as a first $100m of aid.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was dispatched along with several other US Navy and coastguard vessels to join the rescue teams already searching for survivors of Haiti's worst earthquake in two centuries.
Dr Greg Elder, Medecins Sans Frontières' deputy operations manager in Haiti, warned that the public health system was only "marginally functional" before the disaster struck. "We've been able to set up some first-aid centres during the day," he said, "but those centres have been overwhelmed already."
According to the Haitian Red Cross, 45,000 to 50,000 people may have died and three million more – a third of the country's population – hurt or left homeless by the 7.0-magnitude quake.
Apocalyptic scenes confronted those rescuers who did manage to reach the stricken city. Corpses lay on the streets, covered by a cloth or blanket in front of crumpled buildings. People tore by hand at the rubble in search of lost family and loved ones, and bodies littered the streets. Crowds of people roamed outside afraid to go indoors for fear of further tremors. There were reports of looting, but the general mood was one of shock and numbness, rather than of widespread social disorder.
President Rene Preval last night said that 7,000 people had been buried in a mass grave, while aid workers on the ground were overwhelmed by the task ahead. "We just don't know what to do," a Chilean peacekeeper said, "we have not been able to get into all the areas." Another rescue worker told the Reuters news agency that "money is worth nothing right now, water is the currency".
Many of the aid bodies and foreign agencies, such as the United Nations, that would normally have led relief efforts, were themselves crippled by the earthquake. Their headquarters lay in ruins and their staff were forced to look for the dead and missing from their own ranks as well.
"The authorities existing before the earthquake are not able to fully function," Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, told reporters, pledging "an aggressive and co-ordinated response" to the calamity. But if anything, she was understating the absence of central authority, with many senior Haitian officials themselves missing, and government buildings damaged and virtually useless.
Faced with such colossal obstacles, the US and other countries involved in the relief effort were considering every possible means of bringing in aid, however unorthodox, including helicopters, airdrops and amphibious landings on beaches near Port-au-Prince, to get heavy equipment where it was needed.
Gordon Brown, writing in The Independent, said Haiti "must for the moment become the centre of our world's attention".
But yesterday it seemed as if it was the US which, in practice, was taking over a country only 600 miles from its southern shores, and with which it has had a close, and sometimes fraught, relationship. Last night the US was trying to set up a local communications network to replace the one destroyed by the quake.
For Mr Obama, therefore, the crisis is a new test of his leadership. Criticised for what was seen as a slow response to the Christmas Day terrorist attack, Mr Obama has reacted quickly to the first major disaster emergency of his presidency. In a deliberate show of support for Haiti, key leaders of his administration, including Ms Clinton, the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, and Vice-President Joe Biden stood beside him as he made his statement.
The former president Bill Clinton, already the UN special envoy for Haiti, has been asked to help cope with the disaster. Mr Clinton yesterday described the earthquake as "one of the great humanitarian emergencies in the history of the Americas".
Tales from the epicentre
We have only lived here for four years and certainly don't have a full grasp on the culture yet.
One thing is ABSOLUTELY true... Haitian people are tough, strong , brave, and tenacious. Most of them have been suffering for decades and decades and have seen more than you can imagine.
The amount of the current suffering caused by the earthquake cannot possibly be known right now... the numbers cannot be estimated. But, if the way they deal with day to day hardship is any indication – the people of Haiti will rise.
Pray for the trapped, pray for the hurt. Send your money to organisations sending medical help.
Tara Livesay, aid worker Livesay family Haiti blog
Port au Prince is quiet tonight. I've never heard such a big city so quiet. I assume everybody is sleeping outside somewhere. The streets are now Haiti's living room and bedroom... We need help with the rubble, help with medical supplies, help with food, water. The singing and praying has begun. God help us all.
Ramhaiti, via twitter
The Government have to take the lead and bring hope to us Immediately. It's been more than 24 hours now!!
carelpedre via twitter
It has seemed calm around town and fairly easy to navigate the roads. Most ppl still seemed shocked. Many had bags packed – leaving city I assume... It struck me yesterday that there is no such thing as "first responders" in Haiti – the rescue efforts so far consisted of anyone nearby.
Troy Livesay, via twitter
Just came back from the streets. people are fighting over water food and meds. Only saw 2 open pharmacies today by the general hospital, and they are overly crowded. I witnessed a few men digging out a 3 month old baby from a house alive with no medical help around... HELP IS NEEDED ! People still alive under College Canapé Vert are screaming for help to get them out of the rubble.
fredodupoux, via twitter
Everyone here is OK, but we are all very scared. The buildings held up great, but there are several houses right around us that collapsed.
It's very chaotic here. We were able to buy diesel this morning and hopefully get more propane for cooking tomorrow. Last night was crazy. Slept on the dirt in the center of the village away from the buildings. We go in and out to get necessities.
The Haitian people are numb and sad to say very used to death, but this has created what seems to be a hypnotic state. I've never been in a situation were you feel SO helpless, fearful, and small. The tremors are coming again as i type this. Whoa!!!
Mark Stuart, Musician email to friends circulated onlineReuse content