Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti earthquake: survivors desperate for clean water as disease takes hold

British rescue workers pull woman from rubble as aid agencies and US military continue to free survivors five days after quake hit Port-au-Prince

Bodies of earthquake victims are piled up in Port-au-Prince's national cemetery. Photograph: David Levene

Rescuers continued to pull survivors from collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince today as aid agencies and the US military raced to tackle the latest problem of the unfolding disaster: a lack of clean water that threatens dehydration and outbreaks of waterborne disease.

A team of British rescue workers pulled a mother alive from the rubble of her house last night, 96 hours after she was trapped by Tuesday's earthquake.

Volunteer group Rapid UK, supported by firefighters from Manchester and Leicestershire, celebrated freeing the 39-year-old after she was trapped in a tiny slither of space when her home collapsed. When she emerged from the gap between the crumpled first and second floors her arm was cut and she was very dehydrated, but she was fully conscious and happy to be alive.

"Merci Jesus! Merci Jesus!" she shouted several times as she was lifted onto a stretcher.

Her son, who was there as she was released, could only find words to berate her. "You abandoned me!" he said.

"It was brilliant," said Anthony Thompson, a decorator from Bovey Tracey in Devon, who was part of the volunteer rescue team. "This is what we train so hard for."

About 1,000 rescue workers in 100 teams are fanned out across the city working on selected collapsed buildings. On Friday, 35 people were pulled out alive and on Thursday, 25 survivors were found.

The initial response had been painfully slow as teams were turned back at Port-au-Prince airport, due to chaotic air traffic control. Heavy lifting gear to penetrate buildings took even longer to arrive ‑ in the case of the British firefighters it came on Saturday night, five days after the disaster struck.

The rescue workers learnt of the woman's plight when her neighbours said they could still hear her talking. The team dug a hole above her head with hammers and picks and found her lying beside her dead daughter, still holding her child in her arms. The woman has now been taken to a field hospital at the airport.

With each passing day the likelihood of rescues diminishes, but the team has been surprised by how many healthy people they are finding. Dehydration is now the biggest enemy, as unless people were trapped with water at hand they are unlikely to live much longer.

"We are still pulling people out in fairly good condition, so this is by no means over yet," said Simon Thomasson, a telecoms engineer from Hampshire.

The latest estimates for the death toll would make it one of the 10 deadliest earthquakes in history. The body of the UN mission chief in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, was found in the rubble of his headquarters. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon also confirmed the death of Annabi's deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa. Annabi, a Tunisian diplomat, was "a true citizen of the world", said Ban, who called Brazilian Da Costa "a legend in UN peacekeeping operations". Nearly 100 UN staff are still unaccounted for.

The scope of the disaster prompted President Barack Obama ‑ flanked by his predecessors, George Bush and Bill Clinton ‑ to pledge one of the largest relief efforts in US history and to promise that "sustained help" was on its way.

His comments came as Washington acknowledged the limits of its initial relief efforts and promised to speed delivery of water and other essential supplies. Hillary Clinton arrived in Haiti to assess the damage.

Speaking at Port-au-Prince airport alongside the Haitian president, René Préval, the US secretary of state said America would be on hand "today, tomorrow and for the time ahead".

Clinton said the US aid drive ‑ involving thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines along with civilian aid workers ‑ was done at Haiti's invitation and that she and Préval would issue a joint statement outlining the way forward.

As the sound of aircraft bearing relief supplies momentarily drowned out the microphone, Clinton said: "That's a good sound. That means good things are coming and helping the people of Haiti." Clinton was due to evacuate around 50 US citizens when she finished her brief, one-day trip designed to avoid complicating the huge relief effort.

With concern rising over the risk of disease, trucks piled with corpses have been carrying bodies to mass graves outside the city. Thousands of bodies are believed to be still buried beneath rubble. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians are living under homemade tents of plastic sheets, with no evident supplies of food. Families are dependent on water bought on the streets at inflated prices.

An aftershock of magnitude 4.5 sent rescuers scurrying from dangerous areas. They later returned to continue searching for survivors. Fuel is also running perilously low, with just three petrol stations in the city open.

The scale of the catastrophe was underlined by the efforts to clear the streets of the dead. "We have already collected around 20,000 dead bodies," the interior minister, Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé, said. "We anticipate there will be between 100,000 and 200,000 dead in total, although we will never know the exact number."

Another concern has been the problem of security, exacerbated by anger at the apparently slow pace of the relief effort. "There have been incidents of people looting or fighting for food. They are desperate, they have been three days without food or any assistance," the UN peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, said.

Four US ships carrying desalination equipment capable of producing up to 25,000 litres of water a day will not arrive for several days. The USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier already at the scene, can produce 35,000 litres a day. But the problem is how to get the water to survivors.

Stephanie Bunker, of the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York, said: "Some bottled water is en route but it is a very small amount. There has also been some distribution of purification tablets. Water is water. You can't last long without it."

Concern over shortages is driving plans by the Haitian government to set up around 14 camps where shelter and water will be provided as well as latrines, but this could take days to organise.

Préval criticised the lack of co-ordination of the relief effort, adding that 74 planes had arrived at Port-au-Prince's overwhelmed airport in a single day. "We must keep our cool and not throw accusations at each other," he said after a French minister complained that US controllers had turned away two French relief flights.


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