- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010

U.S. officials appealed for patience Sunday as delays continued in distributing desperately needed aid for survivors of last week’s earthquake in Haiti, saying that violence and looting have impeded rescue operations.

Responding to criticism that supplies and medical assistance are not reaching Haitians who need them quickly enough, U.S. military and civilian officials insisted they are doing all they can, including clearing transit routes and finding other means for delivery.

“We are trying to dramatically expand the in-country distribution network,” said Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We now need to expand alternate routes, including port-sea access.”

Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command who was in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, during Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake and heads the relief effort, said the U.S. military “is relying principally on aviation off the carrier the USS Carl Vinson” because of the airport’s limited operability.

“We are going to be here as long as we are needed,” Gen. Keen said on CNN, adding that one of the challenges in the coming days will be the security situation.

“There are increasing incidents of violence,” he said on Fox News. “We are looking at that very closely. We do need, obviously, a safe and secure environment to continue and do the best we can with the humanitarian assistance.”

In Port-au-Prince, prayers of thanksgiving and cries for help rose from a roofless cathedral and the huddled homeless Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

“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 collapsed nursing home near the airport.

Pregnant women gave birth in the streets. The injured arrived in wheelbarrows and on people’s backs at hurriedly erected field hospitals. Authorities warned of looting and violence. In downtown Port-au-Prince, where people set bonfires to burn uncollected bodies, gunfire rang out and bands of machete-wielding young men, their faces covered with bandanas, roamed the streets.

Cabinet minister Carol Joseph told Agence France-Presse that the government had declared a state of emergency and a period of mourning until at least the end of the month. Mr. Joseph also said 70,000 bodies have been buried in mass graves across the country.

Mr. Shah, who was in Haiti with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday, said that about 30 search-and-rescue teams, with more than 70 members each, are working around the clock, with several more teams on standby in the United States.

“We have been doing everything we can to get as many assets on the ground as possible and get them deployed quickly,” he said on CNN. “There has been some clearance of certain roads, and there is a lot more heavy equipment coming from the U.S. military.”

Gen. Keen said the military distributed 70,000 bottles of water and 130,000 rations on Saturday.

Southern Command said that about 5,000 U.S. military personnel “are currently supporting task-force operations within Haiti and from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels off shore,” and about 7,500 additional personnel were scheduled to arrive by Monday.

The White House said that President Obama signed an executive order on Saturday allowing select members of the military reserves to be called to help with Haiti’s recovery.

“It will be used on a limited basis, principally to support targeted functions associated with this humanitarian mission,” it said. “For instance, it will allow for the call-up of reserve medical personnel to replace those deployed on the hospital ship Comfort and it will allow for the deployment of a Coast Guard unit that will help provide port security.”

Tim Callaghan, senior regional adviser for Latin America and Caribbean at USAID, told reporters in a conference call from Port-au-Prince on Sunday that the rescue teams have “life-saved” 62 people so far, most of them Haitians.

“We are still in a rescue mode through tomorrow,” he said, adding that the teams and the Haitian government will determine when the rescue phase ends.

The State Department said 16 Americans, including one government employee, have been confirmed dead.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the destroyed U.N. headquarters in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, and took back 40 bodies of dead U.N. staff members. Shortly after he left, rescuers dug out a surviving Danish staffer. Hundreds of other U.N. personnel, including peacekeepers, are still missing and presumed to be in the building’s rubble.

“This is one of the most serious crises in decades,” Mr. Ban told reporters as he flew into the Haitian capital. “The damage, destruction and loss of life are just overwhelming.”

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, meanwhile, dismissed critics of Mr. Obama — especially conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh — who accuse the president of using the situation in Haiti to score political points.

Mr. Limbaugh also had urged Americans not to donate to Haiti relief funds, because he did not trust the White House to use the contributions appropriately. It is enough that Americans pay taxes, he had said.

“I don’t know what they are talking about,” Mr. Bush said on NBC. “I appreciate the president’s quick response to this disaster.”

The former presidents, who appeared beside Mr. Obama at a White House announcement Saturday, set up the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

Officials from aid-donor nations will meet next week in Montreal to discuss Haiti’s reconstruction and long-term stabilization efforts. Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and Mrs. Clinton will attend, the Canadian government announced Sunday.

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