PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haitian authorities said yesterday they believe 140,000 people died in the earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation and that three-quarters of the capital, Port-au-Prince, would need to be rebuilt.
Three days after the quake, gangs of robbers had begun to prey on survivors living in makeshift camps on sidewalks and streets strewn with rubble and scattered decomposing bodies, as quake aftershocks rippled through the hilly neighborhoods.
“We are cleaning the streets of the dead bodies and putting them in mass graves. We have buried 40,000 people. We think there are 100,000 more on top of that,” Aramick Louis, secretary of state for public safety, told Reuters.
“There are a lot of people under the rubble,” he said.
Louis said President Rene Preval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive were living and coordinating the government response from the judicial police headquarters near the airport and their main concern was that desperation was turning to violence.
“We are sending our police into areas where bandits are starting to operate. Some people are robbing, are stealing. That is wrong,” Louis said.
“The people in the refugee places, once they do not find food and assistance, they are getting angry and upset. Our message to everyone is to stay calm.”
Governments around the world poured relief supplies and medical teams into the Caribbean state — already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, which was hit by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday afternoon.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to visit today and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shortly as major powers raced to save lives, speed up supplies and avert unrest in a state with a history of internal conflict.
Planes and ships arrived with rescue teams, search dogs, heavy equipment, tents, water purification units, food, doctors and telecoms teams. But with a clogged airport and wrecked seaport and roads littered with rubble, as well as the sheer scale of the destruction, aid was not yet reaching hundreds of thousands of victims.
DAMAGE OUTSIDE THE CAPITAL
Raggedly-dressed survivors held out their arms to reporters touring the city, begging for food and water.
“We have lost everything. We are waiting for death. We have nothing to eat, nowhere to live. We have had no help. No one has come to see us,” said quake victim, Andres Rosario, speaking at an improvised camp set up by survivors at a rubbish dump in Port-au-Prince.
“Three-quarters of Port-au-Prince will have to be reconstructed, not just the areas totally destroyed, but also the places where so many houses have structural damage,” Health Minister Alex Larsen told Reuters.
Asked what resources the government had as it faced the health emergency, the minister replied: “I do not even have a piece of cotton … We are waiting for equipment and medicine. Some have already arrived and we are thankful,” he added.
Reports had begun to trickle in of heavy damage in the southern coastal city of Jacmel and other areas outside the capital.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who pledged an initial $100 million for Haiti quake relief, promised America would do what it takes to save lives and get the country back on its feet. “The scale of the devastation is extraordinary … and the losses are heartbreaking,” Obama said at the White House.
ROADBLOCKS WITH CORPSES
The U.S. military aimed to have about 1,000 troops on the ground in Haiti yesterday, and thousands more in ships off shore. The total will reach 9,000-10,000 troops by Monday.
“The key is to get the food and the water in there as quickly as possible so that people don’t in their desperation turn to violence or lead to the security situation deteriorating,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Police were scarcely seen on the streets, and although some Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers were patrolling, there were reports of sporadic scavenging, some looting and one report of gunshots in downtown Port-au-Prince yesterday.
“I heard the shots and got out of there. The police told us it was too dangerous to stay. People were looting and a body was being burned,” said a foreign photographer, who asked not to be identified.
At one destroyed supermarket scores of people swarmed over the rubble to try to reach the food underneath. Just outside Cite Soleil slum, desperate people crowded around a burst water pipe jostling to drink from the pipe or fill up buckets.
Some survivors, angry over the delay in getting aid, built roadblocks with corpses on Thursday in one part of the city.
“Some aid is slowly getting through, but not to many people,” said Margaret Aguirre, a senior official with International Medical Corps.
The United States said the arrival of its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson with 19 helicopters yesterday would open a second significant channel to deliver help.
NO WATER, NO SUPPLIES
The Pan American Health Organization said at least eight hospitals and health centers in Port-au-Prince had collapsed or sustained damage and were unable to function.
“We have no supplies. We need surgical gloves, antibiotics, antiseptic, disinfectant. We have nothing. Not even water. We have children out here with dry mouths and no water to give them,” said one doctor, Jean Dieudonne Occelien.
Health experts say that while dead bodies smell unpleasant, in cases where people have been killed in traumatic accidents and not by contagious diseases such as cholera there is little health risk from even large numbers of decomposing corpses.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, which has lost at least 36 of its personnel in the quake, was trying to provide some basic coordination from an office near the airport and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he planned to go to Haiti “very soon”.
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