PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — First lady Michelle Obama made a surprise visit Tuesday to the ruins of the Haitian capital, a high-profile reminder that hundreds of thousands remain in desperate straits three months after the earthquake.
The first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, took a helicopter tour of Port-au-Prince, where many are still homeless, before landing at the destroyed national palace to meet President Rene Preval.
They later talked with students whose lives have been upended by the disaster and walked along a vast, squalid encampment of families living under bed sheets and tents.
"It's powerful," Obama told reporters. "The devastation is definitely powerful."
A number of past and present world leaders have visited since the earthquake, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But few have the star power here of the American first lady, whose husband is widely popular in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.
"It was important for Jill and I to come now because we're at the point where the relief efforts are under way, but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit," she said. "As we enter the rainy season and the hurricane season … the issues are just going to become more compounded."
The U.S. government historically has had a troubled relationship with Haiti, occupying the country for nearly two decades early in the 20th century and later backing brutal dictators, but many Haitians are grateful for the aid and security provided by the United States since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The United States has given nearly $1 billion in humanitarian aid and pledged more than $1 billion in additional aid to the impoverished country.
It is Obama's first solo trip as first lady, and she flew on to Mexico City on Tuesday night for a two-day visit.