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Published: Monday, 1/18/2010

Prayers, cries for help fill Haiti's streets

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Prayers of thanksgiving and cries for help rose from Haiti's huddled homeless yesterday, the sixth day of a crisis that was straining the world's ability to respond and igniting violence amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

Haitian police struggled to scatter hundreds of stone-throwing looters in the Old Market. Elsewhere downtown, amid the smoke from the burning of unclaimed bodies, gunfire rang out and bands of machete-wielding young men roamed the streets, their faces hidden by bandanas.

A leading aid group complained of a supply bottleneck at the U.S.-controlled airport. The general in charge said the U.S. military was "working aggressively" to speed up deliveries.

Beside the ruins of the Port-Au-Prince cathedral, where the sun streamed through the shattered stained glass, the priest told his flock at their first Sunday Mass since Tuesday's earthquake, "We are in the hands of God now."

But anger mounted hourly that other hands were slow in getting food and water to millions in need.

"The government is a joke. The U.N. is a joke," Jacqueline Thermiti, 71, said as she lay in the dust with dozens of dying elderly outside their destroyed nursing home. "We're a kilometer [half a mile] from the airport and we're going to die of hunger." Hours later, a frail resident of the home perished in the afternoon heat.

Water was delivered to more people in the capital, where an estimated 300,000 of the displaced were living outdoors. But food and medicine were still scarce.

The crippled city choked on the stench of death and shook with yet another aftershock yesterday. On the streets, people were still dying, people were on their knees praying for help, pregnant women were giving birth on the pavement, and the injured were showing up in wheelbarrows and on people's backs at hurriedly erected field hospitals. Authorities warned that looting and violence could spread.

Many merchants were afraid to open their stores for fear that they would be overrun by quake victims. Even pharmacies remained shuttered.

"We're all scared. We need the United Nations and we need the United States Marines," said Cledanor Sully, owner of a small Port-au-Prince hotel called the Seven Stars. He sleeps in a park across the street from his damaged - but still standing - hotel, fearful looters will strip it of mattresses and dressers.

About 2,000 Marines are expected to arrive off Haiti today, the on-the-ground U.S. commander in Haiti, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, said. They would reinforce 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

The U.S. 18th Airborne set up a headquarters at the airport, and the 82nd Airborne was establishing small posts around the city to protect food and water drops. The 82nd Airborne had 500 personnel here as of last night, and 750 more were expected today.

The White House said the U.S. Coast Guard ship Oak had arrived at Port-au-Prince harbor, rendered useless for incoming aid because of quake damage, and would use heavy cranes and other equipment to make the port functional.

"This is one of the most serious crises in decades," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he flew into the Haitian capital. "The damage, destruction, and loss of life are just overwhelming."

A reliable death toll may be weeks away, but the Pan American Health Organization estimates 50,000 to 100,000 died in the 7.0-magnitude tremor. Haitian officials believe the number is higher.

Some food was still commercially available in the city, but prices had skyrocketed beyond what most people could afford.

The aid group CARE had yet to set a plan for distributing 38 tons of World Food Program high-energy biscuits in outlying areas of Haiti, CARE spokesman Brian Feagans said. He did not say why.

The Geneva-based aid group Doctors Without Borders put it bluntly: "There is little sign of significant aid distribution." The "major difficulty," it said, was the bottleneck at the airport.

Gregory Brown, a food program spokesman in Rome, was more positive, speaking of "extremely close cooperation" with the United States at the airport. But a coordinator for Spain's international development agency, Daniel Martin, complained that aid supplies had been diverted to Santo Domingo, and Doctors Without Borders spokesman Jason Cone said the U.S. military needed "to be clear on its prioritization of medical supplies and equipment."

The streets of Port-au-Prince were almost devoid of Haitian law enforcement presence yesterday. For years, blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeeping forces have patrolled the city in armored personnel carriers and trucks.

But the U.N. force is deeply unpopular, and its ability to respond to the crisis has been hampered by leadership problems. The force's acting commissioner died during the earthquake, and his replacement did not arrive for several days.

"The blue helmets, they don't do anything," said Gregoire Sancerre, a computer technology student, echoing a frequent refrain. "If you have trouble and call them, they won't come. They are afraid of gangsters. What use are they?"



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