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Aid delivery into Haiti shows gains

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — All rescuers saw of Saint-Helene Jean-Louis when they arrived at the collapsed University of Port-au-Prince building were the top of her head and her left hand.

It had been four days since a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled the building, one of hundreds destroyed in the most powerful natural disaster to hit the impoverished Caribbean nation in more than 200 years — but the 29-year-old student was still breathing inside a stairwell of the former four-story structure. She was surrounded by eight decaying bodies, one entwined with her own.

Rescuers from Virginia's Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue team dug down and sideways to free her upper body. She was able to sip a little water.

Nearly 30 hours later, working in two shifts, they pulled Jean-Louis out of the building — still alive. She was able to say her name before being whisked away to an Israeli field hospital.

"The whole thing is pretty amazing," Lt. Evan Lewis said. "I've been doing this for a long time and you don't see that many people buried for that long of a time who are still coherent."

A few other foreign and national rescue teams working feverishly to find survivors celebrated their own successes, but across the steamy city, hope faded by the hour for finding many more victims alive.

Meanwhile, despite many obstacles, the pace of aid delivery was picking up. Water and food began reaching parched and hungry survivors in the city.

The Haitian government had established 14 distribution points for food and other supplies, and U.S. Army helicopters were reconnoitering for more. With eight city hospitals destroyed or damaged, aid groups opened five emergency health centers. Vital gear, such as water-purification units, was arriving from abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Saturday with Haitian President René Préval and promised that U.S. quake relief efforts would be closely coordinated with local officials.

"As President Obama has said, we will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead," she said at the Port-au-Prince airport. "And speaking personally, I know of the great resilience and strength of the Haitian people. You have been severely tested. But I believe that Haiti can come back even stronger and better in the future."

Clinton is the highest-ranking Obama administration official to visit since the quake struck.

"Mrs. Clinton's visit really warms our heart today," Préval said.

Préval also said he was encouraged to see former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush together with President Barack Obama at the White House earlier Saturday in a joint plea for international assistance to Haiti.

Four days after the quake, nobody knew how many were dead. Haiti's government alone has recovered 20,000 bodies — not counting those recovered by independent agencies or relatives themselves, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said.

In a fresh estimate, the Pan American Health Organization said 50,000 to 100,000 people perished in the quake. Bellerive said 100,000 would "seem to be the minimum." Truckloads of corpses were being trundled to mass graves.

A U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman declared the quake the worst disaster the international organization has ever faced, since so much government and U.N. capacity in the country was demolished. In that way, Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva, it's worse than the cataclysmic Asian tsunami of 2004: "Everything is damaged."

Search teams recovered the body of Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi, the United Nations chief of mission in Haiti, and other top U.N. officials who were killed when their headquarters collapsed.

Emergency workers with nearly 30 teams from around the globe were still scrambling Saturday to find and rescue the living, Clinton said.

It was increasingly a race against time: Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno noted that the critical 72-hour period for finding survivors "has passed and … these stories of people surviving are getting rarer."

Israeli troops rescued the director of Haiti's Tax Ministry who was trapped in the ruins of his office building. Soldiers carried him out on a stretcher, checked his vital signs and declared him unhurt.

Eighteen members of Mexico's Rescue Brigade, a group with molelike tunneling skills that rescued survivors after Mexico's deadly 1985 earthquake and in New York after Sept. 11, pulled seven survivors out from under collapsed buildings Friday, said brigade coordinator Fernando Alvarez.

The Rev. Dr. Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Church's humanitarian relief agency, died before he could be rescued from the rubble of the Hotel Montana, which was destroyed by the earthquake, the church said in a statement from New York.

As many Haitians' desperation grew, more American help was on the way: The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort steamed from the port of Baltimore on Saturday and was scheduled to arrive Thursday. More than 2,000 Marines were set to sail from North Carolina to support aid delivery and provide security.

However, aid delivery was still bogged down by an airport hobbled by only one runway, a ruined port whose main pier splintered into the ocean, roads blocked by rubble, widespread fuel shortages and a lack of drivers to move the aid into the city. There were also reports of intensifying looting and violence, particularly around aid distribution points.

The worst violence to date broke out in a warehouse district in Port-au-Prince, where 1,000 rioters with makeshift weapons fought over whatever goods they could loot from shuttered houses and shops. Witnesses said the police left as things got worse.

The airport congestion touched off diplomatic rows between the U.S. military and other donor nations.

France and Brazil lodged official complaints that the U.S. military, in control of the international airport, had denied landing permission to relief flights from their countries.

Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who has 7,000 Brazilian U.N. peacekeeping troops in Haiti, warned against viewing the rescue effort as a unilateral American mission.

In Washington, Obama joined with his two most recent White House predecessors to appeal for Americans to donate to the cause.

Describing the phone calls he made to the two men in the aftermath of the earthquake, Obama said: "They each asked the same simple question: 'How can I help?' "

As the death toll in Haiti grows, Obama said, the American response, both private and public, must grow with it.

"We stand united with the people of Haiti, who have shown such incredible resilience," he said.

Their resilience was truly being tested, however.

Outside a warehouse, hundreds of desperate Haitians simply dropped to their knees when workers for the agency Food for the Poor announced they would distribute rice, beans and other supplies. "They started praying right then and there," said project director Clement Belizaire.

The aid official was overcome by the tragic scene. "This was the darkest day of everybody living in Port-au-Prince," he said.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

The latest

• Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said an estimate of up to 100,000 dead would "seem to be the minimum."

• Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits the battered nation, as President Barack Obama recruits former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to appeal for donations.

More inside

Senegalese offer: The president of the African nation says Haitians who want to return to their roots would be given land. 6A

Locals help: Bay area residents find comfort in donating items and their time to relief efforts. 6A

Aid delivery into Haiti shows gains 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 11:28pm]
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