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Rescue teams find land of the dazed and dying

Death toll may hit 50,000; bulldozers used to carry bodies from streets

Image: People carry an injured earthquake survivor in Haiti
Ramon Espinosa / AP
People carry an injured earthquake survivor in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti Tuesday.
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msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8:49 p.m. ET Jan. 14, 2010

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 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 for loved ones. Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers, key to city security, were trying to organize mass burials.

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

"Unfortunately, they're slowly getting more angry and impatient, because when they see us moving — and we're patrolling the streets, the military and the police are out patrolling the streets in order to maintain a calm situation, so that humanitarian aid can be delivered," 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 first of 800 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were to deploy to Haiti from North Carolina, to be followed by more than 2,000 Marines.

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, 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.

"Money is worth nothing right now, water is the currency," one foreign aid-worker told Reuters.

'It's been crazy'
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.

Slideshow
Image: A woman sits at an open camp area where people are staying after a major earthquake hit the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince
  Earthquake rocks Haiti
The Caribbean island is devastated by a 7.0-magnitude quake and dozens of aftershocks.

more photos

“It’s been just crazy,” said Charity Peguero, a company spokeswoman for Aero Ambulancia. “People are willing to pay whatever price to get their people there.”

Her firm, an emergency flight company in the Dominican Republic, had shuttled medical crews and injured passengers in and out of Haiti on 15 flights on Wednesday. Most victims had suffered from facial fractures, skull fractures and other life-threatening injuries, she said.

On Thursday, it was a different scene.

The firm’s helicopters were grounded, stranding aid workers, news crews and others hoping to travel to Haiti, she said.

“Minutes are passing by and people are needing help,” she said.

Red Cross officials have estimated one-third of Haiti's 9 million people are in need of aid. But those flights which 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.

Others made it out
Injured survivors began arriving in South Florida for treatment.

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The University of Miami Jackson Memorial Hospital received 11 patients, including eight U.S. citizens. Trauma surgeon Mark McKenney said Thursday that nine more patients were expected later that day.

McKenney said doctors had already performed an amputation and were treating a brain injury. He said six of the patients were in good to fair condition and four remained in critical condition.

McKenney said doctors at Jackson Memorial were considering using a satellite phone system to better assist doctors treating the injured on the Caribbean island.

Security concerns also topped the list.

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The looting of shops that broke out after the 7.0-magnitude quake struck late Tuesday afternoon added tension on the streets. The Brazilian military warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting by the desperate population.

"There is no other way to get provisions," American Red Cross representative Matt Marek said of the store looting. "Even if you have money, those resources are going to be exhausted in a few days." The city's "ti-marchant," mostly women who sell food on the streets, were expected to run out soon.

'We're not taking over'
The quake brought down Port-au-Prince's gleaming white National Palace and other government buildings, disabling much of the national leadership. That vacuum was evident Thursday.

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  Anxious Haitians flock to airport
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"Donations are coming in to the airport here, but there is not yet a system to get it in," said Kate Conradt, a spokeswoman for the Save the Children aid group. "It's necessary to create a structure to stock and distribute supplies," the Brazilian military said.

Edmond Mulet, a former U.N. peacekeeping chief in Haiti, arrived Thursday from U.N. headquarters in New York to lead the relief effort, along with a U.N. disaster coordination team. The first U.S. military units to arrive took on a coordinating role at the airport, but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley underlined, "We're not taking over Haiti."

Wimhurst said the Haitian police "are not visible at all," no doubt because many had to deal with lost homes and family members, and law-and-order needs had fallen completely to the 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers and international police in Haiti.


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