x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Haiti rescuers racing against the clock

With the death toll rising by the hour, the main priority of the international rescue teams is to find survivors from the Haiti earthquake.

In a country where 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, the situation is
In a country where 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, the situation is "beyond comprehension".

The priority was to find survivors yesterday as international rescue teams began arriving in Haiti two days after the impoverished island nation suffered its worst-ever earthquake. With the death toll mounting by the hour, into the tens of thousands, Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva, summed up the horrific situation when she said: "We are working against the clock."

Planes, lorries and boats filled with rescue personnel, equipment and supplies started arriving in force, international organisations and foreign governments promised millions of dollars in assistance - the World Bank alone offered US$100 million (Dh367m) - and charities solicited contributions via phone and the internet. With that in mind, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation issued the inevitable "Haitian Earthquake Relief Fraud Alert", warning about fraudulent appeals for donations to Haiti relief.

That did not stop the world from reacting with contributions, commitments and compassion to the dire needs of the nation of nine million people, 80 per cent of whom live in poverty. "Haiti has been devastated by this earthquake," Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on Fox News yesterday. "It is beyond our comprehension." "The next 24 hours is critical to save those lives that can be saved. We know that from other earthquakes and other disasters," Mrs Clinton told CNN as she took to the airwaves to talk about the massive relief effort involving countries around the globe.

A 60-member team from China was among the first to arrive at the Port-au-Prince airport yesterday, bringing with it tonnes of food, medical equipment and sniffer dogs to locate bodies. The Chinese rescue workers knew the gut-wrenching task they were facing, having worked in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in south-western China that left about 90,000 people dead or missing. The Chinese team and others coming from the United Nations, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, Israel and elsewhere would immediately see what Jon Katz, an Associated Press reporter in the Haitian capital, said was a "city in ruins".

"Mothers have lost their children. Children have lost their families. Entire neighbourhoods are sleeping in the streets. People walk miles up and down mountains, carrying everything they own, with no real place to go," he wrote. "Imagine if nearly all the institutions in your life - flawed, but still the only ones - disappeared, all at once. In a life where the next meal is uncertain, where the next rain may claim your home, where the next election may happen or not - where that is the [norm]. Think of having those institutions smashed all around you. At the very moment when you have lost someone, perhaps many people, you loved," Katz said of a country long wracked by poverty, violence and failed governments.

The first US troops were on their way to Haiti and a half dozen US military ships were also expected to help, with the largest, the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, arriving in the island nation after the US president Barack Obama ordered a "swift, co-ordinated" relief effort on Wednesday. The US military said the hospital ship USNS Comfort would leave this weekend for Haiti. The ship is staffed with hundreds of doctors, nurses and technicians. It has 12 operating rooms and space for 1,000 hospital beds.

"We are doing all we can to figure out how to attack the devastation all around and this is going to be a long-term effort, from saving lives and providing food, water and medical supplies, to beginning the reconstruction process," Mrs Clinton said. "This is incredibly complex work. We have some of the best people in the world from the United States down there and we're just going to do everything we can to be helpful."

"This is a shocking event and it is crucial that the international community supports the Haitian people at this critical time," Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, said yesterday. At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Vietnam, Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, said yesterday: "As a country that has been itself devastated by a similar situation, we are absolutely saddened by what's happening in Haiti. We call on the Asean community, including ourselves, of course, to do what we can do to assist them."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a $10m appeal for donations and the World Food Programme said it could quickly provide 15,000 tonnes of food. However, the damage to Haiti's airport, roads and power supplies and lack of co-ordination on the ground were proving to be major obstacles, relief workers said. "It is going to be a major logistical challenge," Ms Byrs of the United Nations told The New York Times.

Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, told the newspaper: "The big challenge is going to be getting things unloaded and getting it to the people who need it. Only military aeroplanes that don't require additional people to unload have been able to land." The monumental task of burying the dead led the World Health Organisation to send specialists to help handle the corpses and warn of the danger of disease.

The Red Cross was also sending a plane loaded mainly with body bags, indicating that some Haitian officials' estimate that 100,000 people or more could have been killed might be accurate. In a commentary piece in The Washington Post yesterday, the former US president Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy for Haiti, wrote: "First we must care for the injured, take care of the dead, and sustain those who are homeless, jobless and hungry. As we clear the rubble, we will create better tomorrows by building Haiti back better: with stronger buildings, better schools and health care; with more manufacturing and less deforestation; with more sustainable agriculture and clean energy.

"In the coming days, stories of loss and the triumph of the human spirit will be told. They will call us to help not just to restore Haiti but to assist it in becoming the strong, secure nation its people have always desired and deserved." Mr Obama also asked the former US president George W Bush to assist in the relief effort. All the aid that is coming from all over the world will be too little too late for Lionnel Dervil.

"I just want my wife's corpse," he was quoted as saying while at the Doctors Without Borders compound in the Haitian capital. The medical workers were too busy trying to save lives to pay too much attention to Mr Dervil, 38, a money-changer and father of four children. "An entire city is screaming for help," Katz of the AP wrote. "I've finally logged onto the internet long enough to see that some of those calls will be answered, at least in some way."

rpretorius@thenational.ae