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50,000 feared dead in Haiti; aid efforts snarled by devastation

By Jonathan M. Katz and Tamara Lush

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 15 2010 12:14 a.m. MST

Cindy Terasme screams after seeing the feet of her dead 14-year-old brother, Jean Gaelle Dersmorne, in the rubble of a collapsed school in Haiti.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Doctors and search dogs, troops and rescue teams flew to this devastated land of dazed, dead and dying people Thursday, finding bottlenecks everywhere, beginning at a main airport short on jet fuel and ramp space and without a control tower.

The international Red Cross estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday's cataclysmic earthquake, based on information from the Haitian Red Cross and government officials. Hard-pressed recovery teams resorted to using bulldozers to transport loads of dead.

Worries mounted, meanwhile, about food and water for the survivors. "People have been almost fighting for water," aid worker Fevil Dubien said as he distributed water from a truck in a northern Port-au-Prince neighborhood.

From Virginia, from France, from China, a handful of rescue teams were able to get down to work, scouring the rubble for survivors. In one "small miracle," searchers pulled a security guard alive from beneath the collapsed concrete floors of the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters, where many others were entombed.

But the silence of the dead otherwise was overwhelming in a city where uncounted bodies littered the streets in the 80-degree heat, and dust-caked arms and legs reached, frozen and lifeless, from the ruins. Outside the General Hospital morgue, hundreds of collected corpses blanketed the parking lot, as the grief-stricken searched among them for loved ones. Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers, key to city security, were trying to organize mass burials.

Patience already was wearing thin among the poorest who were waiting for aid, said David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

"They want us to provide them with help, which is, of course, what we want to do," he said. But they see U.N. vehicles patrolling the streets to maintain calm, and not delivering aid, and "they're slowly getting more angry and impatient," he said.

In Washington, President Barack Obama announced "one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history," starting with $100 million in aid. The U.S. Southern Command reported the first 100 of a planned 900 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division landed in Haiti from North Carolina on Thursday to support disaster relief, to be followed this weekend by more than 2,000 Marines. The American troops "will relieve pressure" on overworked U.N. elements, Wimhurst said.

From Europe, Asia and the Americas, other governments, the U.N. and private aid groups were sending planeloads of high-energy biscuits and other food, tons of water, tents, blankets, water-purification gear, heavy equipment for removing debris, helicopters and other transport, and teams of hundreds of search-and-rescue, medical and other specialists.

But two days after much of this ramshackle city was shattered, the global helping hand was slowed by the poor roads, airport and seaport of a wretchedly poor nation.

Some 60 aid flights had arrived by midday Thursday, but they then had to contend with the chokepoint of an overloaded Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport. At midday, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was temporarily halting all civilian flights from the U.S. at Haiti's request, because the airport was jammed and jet fuel was limited for return flights. The control tower had been destroyed in Tuesday's tremor, complicating air traffic. Civilian relief flights were later allowed to resume.

"There's only so much concrete" for parking planes, U.S. Air Force Col. Buck Elton said at the airport. "It's a constant puzzle of trying to move aircraft in and out."

Teams that did land then had to navigate Haiti's inadequate roads, sometimes blocked by debris or by quake survivors looking for safe open areas as aftershocks still rumbled through the city. The U.N. World Food Program said the quake-damaged seaport made ship deliveries of aid impossible.

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