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Thousands flee capital as aid distribution stalls

4 min

Thousands of Haitians fled the capital Saturday, seeking refuge in the aftermath of Tuesday's earthquake. US officials acknowledged Saturday it was "critical" to better coordinate the massive influx of aid.


AFP - With many nations vying to get urgent relief into horror-struck Haiti after the devastating earthquake, US officials acknowledged Saturday it was "critical" to better coordinate the massive influx of aid.

Though the aid operation was picking up steam, it was still not reaching many of the survivors desperately scrambling for badly-needed food and water four days after the quake believed to have killed tens of thousands.

Some simply stopped waiting, taking part in a massive exodus out of the devastated capital.

As US troops tried to unblock the aid logjam, donor nations were squabbling over what a Haitian official described as "major coordination problems at the airport" in Port-au-Prince now under US control and operating at its maximum capacity of 90 takeoffs or landings per day.

French, Argentine, Peruvian and Mexican flights were just some of many aircraft filled with rescuers and supplies that were turned back at the country's main port of entry, which has only one runway and where the control tower was destroyed in the temblor.

"At this time there is a gigantic traffic jam at Port-au-Prince airport. Moreover, the airport is functioning at a very reduced capacity," International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies operations coordinator Mauricio Bustamante told AFP.

France sought to tamp down a row after a top minister said Paris had formally protested US handling of the aid flights after a French aircraft carrying a field hospital was prevented from landing on Friday.

Haitian authorities were not being informed when planes arrive, so "when they land, there is no one in charge," said Michel Chancy, a Haitian government official who heads a committee in charge of coordinating water and food distribution.

But challenges at the airport were only one part of the problem.

Once supplies arrived, there were also major setbacks to delivering them to those in need, said Tim Callaghan, a senior regional adviser for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

"The coordination piece in my opinion is huge and we must continue to work very close(ly) with the international community, donors and the government of Haiti to, again, identify priorities and get these supplies out as quickly as we can in a coordinated effort," he told reporters.

"The effort is not just getting supplies in but it's getting that out quickly, it's communicating to everyone where it's going, it's providing security in the areas where the distributions are to ensure that relief items are provided in a timely fashion to assist the Haitian people."

The United States was participating in coordination meetings every morning with other donors and non-government organizations, and food rations were being delivered to 14 distribution points.

Armed looters were meanwhile scavenging through the ruined capital of Port-au-Prince, insecure even in the best of times, and now filled with the stench of rotting corpses as anger and despair set in among exhausted survivors.

There was no longer a functioning police force.

Water purification tablets delivered late Friday should be able to produce up to 300,000 liters (79,250 gallons) of water for distribution in containers, according to Callaghan.

More water supplies were being brought in from the Dominican Republic, located on the eastern side of Hispaniola island, which it shares with Haiti.

The United States was also providing 600,000 daily rations -- individual packages of 2,300 calories of food -- for survivors until a UN-backed World Food Program plan swings into play.

Helicopters from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier had already made 16 trips delivering water and ready-to-eat meals by midday Saturday.

The USNS Comfort, a US hospital ship, was on its way to Haiti from Baltimore, Maryland, while five international clinics were operational.

Callaghan said 26 US urban search and rescue teams and over 400 firefighters had fanned out to work around the clock to rescue people still trapped under the rubble, in a "massive" effort he said would continue at least through Sunday.

They were being assisted by medical teams from 13 countries.

But in a sign of the challenge -- it can take more than 12 hours to free a single person from beneath a slab of concrete -- the US teams had only managed to recover 15 Haitians and Americans by early Saturday.

National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough said 180 tons (163 tonnes) of relief supplies had arrived in Haiti so far, and that the US Navy and Coast Guard were looking for ways to reopen ports destroyed in Tuesday's massive 7.0-magnitude quake in order to ship in more materials.

The United Nations says fundraising for Haiti has reached at least 545 million dollars.

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