Relief teams helping Haiti’s traumatised quake victims

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Port-au-PRINCE/SAO PAULO - A mammoth relief operation slowly picked up Thursday in a race against time to help survivors of the earthquake that devastated the Haiti capital of Port-au-Prince.

Relief teams were distributing small quantities of food as thousands of hungry and traumatized residents wandered aimlessly through the streets of the city of 1.9 million.

The capital and its surroundings were the areas hardest hit by the powerful 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the impoverished Caribbean country Tuesday afternoon.

Relief workers spoke of chaotic conditions and a crippled infrastructure that made it difficult to reach people trapped under the rubble of hundreds of buildings destroyed by the quake.

The true scale of the disaster remained unclear, with the government of the Caribbean nation speaking of up to 100,000 feared dead and one-third of 9 million population in need of assistance.

“Food distribution started yesterday (Wednesday),” said Charles Vincent of the World Food Programme, “and today (Thursday) will start in Port-au-Prince.”

Speaking in Geneva, Vincent admitted that the food going to several thousand people was a “drop in the ocean,” but said aid efforts were being stepped up as supplies flow into the country.

“All staff there in Haiti are exhausted,” said Vincent, adding that they continued to work through the night to improve the relief efforts.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said eight hospitals were damaged or destroyed in Haiti and two others in the neighbouring Dominican Republic were damaged as well.

“This was already an especially vulnerable population so it is a particularly devastating impact,” said Paul Garwood with the WHO, warning of disease spreads as the water supply was damaged.

Some 100 members of the United Nations’ staff were still missing, many believed to be buried under rubble. A Filipino UN peacekeeper trapped in a collapsed hotel was rescued Thursday.

Three other Filipino peacekeepers were still believed trapped in the second floor of the Christopher Hotel, the headquarters of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission.

The first European rescue teams arrived Thursday. “Teams from the French Antilles will start search and rescue operations as soon as possible,” said the EU executive in Brussels.

Additional teams are expected to arrive on Thursday from Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Britain and Iceland, which, though not yet an EU member, contributes to the bloc’s civil protection mechanisms.

Italy, Belgium and France have medical teams on their way, while a EU assessment and coordination team is travelling to Haiti on a Belgian plane.

Commission spokeswoman Barbara Helfferich announced that additional aid had been pledged by Germany, Spain, Sweden, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Non-EU member Norway is also involved in the operations.

A 220-member Israeli team of medical and rescue experts was due to depart Thursday to help out with the recovery and treatment of quake victims.

The military has leased two Boeing 747s of the El Al Israeli airline company to transport the mission, which includes a search and rescue unit of the Israeli military, a field hospital, police experts, and medics of Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross.

Britain on Thursday announced an aid package of 6.15 million pounds (10 million dollars) to help kick-start the relief effort.

Some of the money would be used to back the relief programme launched by the International Federation of the Red Cross while the rest would be used to provide water, sanitation, food and shelter for the earthquake victims, International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said.

Meanwhile, France said it has stopped deporting illegal immigrants from Haiti because of the earthquake. President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to meet with his government later Thursday to discuss the situation and decide on additional aid.

France has already deployed several military transport planes and dozens of rescue workers to the capital Port-au-Prince, which appears to have suffered most of the damage.

The French foreign ministry said 50 French nationals were thought to be missing in Haiti. An estimated 1,500 French citizens were living in the former French colony, most of them in Port-au-Prince.

The International Committee of the Red Cross launched a programme and website to help families in Haiti locate missing relatives.

“The aim of the family links website is to accelerate the process of restoring contact between separated family members,” the ICRC said.

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