Relief for the victims of a powerful earthquake and tropical storm began flowing more quickly into Haiti on Thursday, but the Caribbean nation’s entrenched poverty, insecurity and lack of basic infrastructure were still presenting huge challenges to getting food and urgent medical care to all those who need it.
Private relief supplies and shipments from the US government and others were arriving in the southwestern peninsula where the weekend earthquake struck, killing more than 2,100 people. But the need was extreme, made worse by the rain from Tropical Storm Grace, and people were growing frustrated with the slow pace.
Adding to the problems, a major hospital in the capital of Port-au-Prince, where injured from the earthquake zone in the southwestern peninsula were being sent, was closed Thursday for a two-day shutdown to protest the kidnapping of two doctors, including one of the country’s few orthopaedic surgeons.
The abductions dealt a major blow to attempts to control criminal violence that has threatened disaster response efforts in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency late Wednesday raised the number of deaths from the earthquake to 2,189 and said 12,268 people were injured. An estimated 300 people are still missing, said Serge Chery, head of civil defence for the Southern Province, which includes Les Cayes.
The magnitude-7.2 earthquake damaged or destroyed more than 100,000 homes, leaving about 30,000 families homeless, according to official estimates. Hospitals, schools, offices and churches also were demolished or badly damaged.
The US has deployed several heavy-lift helicopters and other aircraft to move relief supplies and personnel to the disaster zone and has dispatched the USS Arlington to provide additional transportation and medical capabilities, Major General Hank Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon.
One of the US helicopters landed Thursday in Les Cayes with equipment, medicine and volunteers, including some from the aid group Samaritan’s Purse. Monte Oitker, a biomedical technician with the organisation, said volunteers were prepared to operate a self-contained hospital unit, capable of handling a variety of orthopaedic procedures.
Distributing aid to the thousands left homeless will be more challenging.
Chery said officials are hoping to start clearing sites where homes were destroyed to allow residents to build temporary shelters.
“It will be easier to distribute aid if people are living at their addresses, rather than in a tent,” he said.
Tension over the slow distribution of aid has become increasingly evident in the area hit hardest by Saturday’s earthquake. At the small airport in the southwestern town of Les Cayes, people thronged a perimeter fence Wednesday as aid was loaded into trucks and police fired warning shots to disperse a crowd of young men.
Angry crowds also massed at collapsed buildings in the city, demanding tarps to create temporary shelters after Grace’s heavy rain.
International aid workers said hospitals in the worst-hit areas are mostly incapacitated, requiring many to be moved to the capital for treatment. But reaching Port-au-Prince from the southwest is difficult under normal conditions because of poor roads and gangs along the route.
Even with a supposed gang truce following the earthquake, kidnapping remains a threat — underscored by the seizure of the two doctors working at the private Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where about 50 quake victims were being treated.
And another problem emerged in the earthquake-damaged southern provinces, where national police said villagers put up barricades on the roads to prevent aid from getting through, arguing that they need help, too.
“For those people who are blocking roads at their leisure to stop it (aid) from getting through to the people, you need to wait until the aid comes to you,” said National Police spokeswoman Marie-Michelle Verrier. She said special police units would escort aid shipments. Verrier also said 22 prisoners had escaped from the Les Cayes jail after the earthquake.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry said Wednesday that his administration will try not to “repeat history on the mismanagement and coordination of aid,” a reference to the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, when the government and international partners struggled to channel help to the needy amid the widespread destruction and misery.
Henry said Saturday’s quake has left the country “on its knees”.
Meanwhile, the Core Group, a coalition of key international diplomats from the US and other nations that monitors Haiti, said in a statement that its members are “resolutely committed to working alongside national and local authorities to ensure that impacted people and areas receive adequate assistance as soon as possible”.
While some officials have suggested an end to the search phase so that heavy machinery can clear the rubble, Henry appeared unwilling to move to that stage.
“Some of our citizens are still under the debris. We have teams of foreigners and Haitians working on it,” he said.
He also appealed for unity.
“We have to put our heads together to rebuild Haiti,” Henry said. “The country is physically and mentally destroyed.”