- Human RightsOther Issues
- January 18, 2010
- 7 minutes read
Haiti earthquake: UN says worst disaster ever dealt with
With up to three million survivors still cut off from outside rescue efforts, the United Nations said the disaster was the worst it had ever dealt with.
Aid officials fear a lapse into all-out lawlessness in coming days unless US troops can get through with vital food, medicine and water deliveries, which are being hampered by the sheer scale of devastation. There were continued incidents of looting, and isolated reports of rescue workers being stoned by angry crowds.
The UN’s warning came as the full picture of the horror in the flattened capital of Port au Prince emerged. Haitian ministers claimed the body count could rise far beyond the 50,000 estimate made by the Red Cross officials on Friday, saying that 50,000 bodies had already been buried. Trucks piled high with corpses delivered them to mass graves outside the stricken city, with thousands more still lying uncollected on the streets or buried under heavy rubble.
“We have already collected around 50,000 dead bodies,” said interior minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime. “We anticipate there will be between 100,000 and 200,000 dead in total, although we will never know the exact number.”
If that casualty count is confirmed, it would make Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake one of the ten deadliest on record. The death toll would also rival that of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed roughly 250,000 lives. However, officials with knowledge of both incidents said the Haitian disaster – which hit a country already barely functional – posed an infinitely tougher relief challenge.
“This is a historic disaster,” said UN spokesman Elisabeth Byrs, whose own organisation has lost 36 local staff in the earthquake. “We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the UN memory. It is like no other.”
The UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy, added: “There have been some incidents where people were looting or fighting for food. They are desperate, they have been three days without food or any assistance.
“We have to make sure that the situation doesn’t unravel, but for that we need very much to ensure that the assistance is coming as quickly as possible.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to land in Port au Prince on Saturday to meet with President Rene Preval, who himself has been rendered homeless by the tremor. The Haitian government has handed over control of its airport to the US military, which has landed 1,000 troops into the country already and will bring another 9,000 in coming days to supervise aid deliveries and ensure stability. Some US soldiers had to keep large crowds at bay outside the airport, where some aid supplies have now got stuck because of the difficulties of transporting them into the disaster zone. Doctors at some of the few functioning field clinics complained that they had already run out of medicines.
In Britain, which has sent teams of specialist rescue workers to Haiti, reports of the earthquake’s appalling aftermath prompted a quick public response. The Disasters Emergency Committee said £10 million was raised in 24 hours.
International aid efforts have so far been bottlenecked because of damage to the port and airport, where numerous relief planes were unable to land last week because of lack of space and damage to the control towers. The US naval aircraft carrier Carl Vinson arrived off Haiti on Friday with 19 helicopters, opening up an alternative aid delivery channel. But after making 20 deliveries of water and energy drinks, it ran out of supplies by yesterday morning. “We have lift, we have communications, but we don’t have much relief supplies to offer,” said Rear Admiral Ted Branch.
“There are other supplies at the airport that are under the control of other agencies and we haven’t yet coordinated together… unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Some 27 international search and rescue teams, with 1,500 workers and 115 dogs are already active in the disaster zone. A team of British firefighters rescued a two-year-old girl buried beneath a collapsed kindergarten, pulling other corpses aside to get at her.
US rescuers also dug throughout Friday night at a collapsed supermarket where as many as 100 people were feared trapped. They were about to give up, when they were told a cashier had managed to call someone in Miami to say she was still alive inside.
The working conditions for rescue teams remain extremely tough, however. Even with armed security teams, most deemed it unsafe to continue working at night. “It isn’t just the challenges of transport and communications, it is security as well,” said one UN official. “One rescue team had stones thrown at them.”
Haiti’s threadbare police force has been largely powerless to keep law and order, although one local police chief said that they were rounding up known gang leaders and criminals, some of whom escaped from a prison damaged during the tremors.
So far the looting and robbery has not been as bad as feared. But rescue officials sense the mood in the city is sullening, and believe violence could become widespread if a substantial aid effort does not arrive soon. On Saturday, four days into the crisis, many Haitians were still digging for loved ones with their bare hands, while others simply wandered the streets in a daze. The stifling heat has made the shortage of drinking water and stench from corpses all the more unbearable.
Yesterday Russel Honore, the retired US general who coordinated the military response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster that devastated New Orleans, said the aid effort for Haiti had been too cautious to start off with.
“The next morning after the earthquake, I assumed there would be airplanes delivering aid,” he said. “What we saw instead was discussion about, ‘Well we’ve got to send an assessment team in to see what the needs are.’ And anytime I hear that, my head turns red.”
Washington denied his claims, saying the operation had been done as quickly as possible. But either way, the scale of the disaster means the initial stages of emergency aid may now only be the beginning. Officials say that up to three-quarters of Port au Prince now need rebuilding, and that US troops may have to be in the country for some six months. Failure to stabilise the situation could lead to a mass exodus of refugees, both into neighbouring Dominica, and possibly also in boats bound for the US.