Buses, cash and radios flow amid Haiti's rubble

  • World
  • Friday, 22 Jan 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Cash became available and buses started running in Haiti's rubble-clogged capital on Friday but there was still not enough food to feed desperate earthquake survivors.

"We can do this 24 hours a day for the next six months and we still won't meet the need," said First Sergeant Rob Farnsworth, part of a U.S. Army airborne unit handing out food packs at a squalid camp where survivors lived in the open air.

Up to 1.5 million Haitians lost their homes in the Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked the small Caribbean country, devastated its capital Port-au-Prince and killed up to 200,000.

Haitians struggled to find food, water and medical care. Even those whose homes withstood the magnitude 7 quake were too traumatized by aftershocks to sleep under a roof.

There were signs of daily life resuming. Taptaps, Haiti's small, colourfully decorated private buses, began to circulate in Port-au-Prince, sharing streets with the earth-movers and digging machines clearing debris.

Banks were scheduled to reopen on Saturday and money transfer agencies did brisk business. Hundreds of people jostled for position outside a Unitransfer office that opened on Friday.

"I want to get some cash sent by my family from Canada. It's $500 but it's difficult. There are so many people," said businessman Aslyn Denis, 31, waiting in the long line.

The World Food Program distributed 1.2 million food rations to hospitals and orphanages on Thursday and hoped to give out 10 million in the next week.


"We may be able to scale up even quicker," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program. "We finally have supplies and food coming in from all over the world."

The seaport in Port-au-Prince was repaired enough to partially reopen for cargo ships, while airstrips outside Haiti's capital and in the neighbouring Dominican Republic received relief flights.

"It is coming in by ships and planes. We have five entry points into Port-au-Prince by land, sea and air," Sheeran said.

But nearly 1,000 hungry people swarmed a U.S. military truck as an 82nd Airborne company known as "the Beast" handed out food and water at an encampment on a soccer field. Overwhelmed, the troops pulled out after distributing 600 packaged meals, leaving 250 food packs still on the truck.

A large supermarket, Big Star Market, reopened in the Petionville suburb on Friday, selling everything from slabs of ham and goat meat to Valentine's Day chocolates.

The store manager said they had only a week or two of stocks left and had received no deliveries. "It's difficult because everyone is nervous of being inside, people can only pay with cash or check, it's not easy," she said.

Haitians are realizing it could take months or years to regain some sense of normalcy.

"We want it to be over, but it's not finished yet, things are bad," said Jeanette, a 53-year-old architect shopping at the market. "I've lost my office. I've lost a whole year of work. We have no stability, no direction, we've been left to fend for ourselves. We can't plan for the future, we're just living day to day."

The United Nations counted nearly 450 homeless encampments in Port-au-Prince alone and urged the government to consolidate them to streamline food distribution.

"The population is so diffused and all of them need the basic services," Sheeran said. "We are really praying that we don't get the rains because it will make it even more difficult to reach people."

Haiti's government planned to move 400,000 survivors from Port-au-Prince to new villages to be built outside the ravaged coastal city, where the homeless huddle, cook and sleep amid decaying corpses and mounds of garbage.

"We need shelter, showers. We don't have food or water. When it rains we have a lot of problems," said Iswick Theophin, a student who was living in one of the makeshift shelters.


U.S. Navy helicopters ferried in boxes of water to distribute to Haitians lining behind cordons at a sprawling camp that covered a golf course. Actor Sean Penn stopped by on Friday to deliver antibiotics, painkillers and water filters. "The whole city has collapsed," he said.

U.S. troops have begun giving away 50,000 solar- and crank-powered radios to help displaced Haitians receive news and public service announcements. The units also have lights and cellphone chargers.

More than 13,000 U.S. military personnel are in Haiti and on 20 ships offshore, flying in supplies, evacuating the seriously wounded and protecting aid distribution points.

The United Nations is adding 2,000 troops and 1,500 police to its 9,000-member peacekeeping mission.

But for many, life remained precarious.

At another camp in Port-au-Prince, a woman tried not to moan in pain as a student doctor bandaged her badly-injured leg. In the dirty tent where he worked, cooking pots bubbled and a dog slept inches from the open wound.

"Of course there is the risk of infection," said Alexi Guyto, 26. "For the most part, we have lost the people who came with major traumas after the earthquake but we still have lots of head and other injuries."

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer, Adam Entous, Joseph Guyler Delva and Natuza Nery in Port-au-Prince, Lesley Wroughton and Adam Entous in Washington; writing by Jane Sutton; editing by Alan Elsner)

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