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For many in Haiti quake, help is still a no-show

Haitians are angry, but not surprised, that they are left to dig out the trapped and haul off the dead on their own. Some people flee Port-au-Prince with whatever they could salvage.

January 15, 2010|By Joe Mozingo and Tracy Wilkinson
  • A woman weeps after seeing the body of a neighbor who died in the devastating earthquake that rocked Haiti two days ago.
A woman weeps after seeing the body of a neighbor who died in the devastating… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — By Thursday, the bodies had begun piling up on the streets. Where the day before there were one or two, now there were several, sometimes dozens in a single spot. It became common to see people carrying bodies through the streets, pickup trucks loaded with bodies on their beds, people pushing bodies in wheelbarrows.

So many bodies, and so little help.

With no food, water or medical assistance in sight, a sense of chaos and urgency gripped Haiti's capital. In a country where civil institutions have rarely worked, there also was a sense of forsaken self-reliance.

In the Turgeau neighborhood, up the hill from downtown, Lily Pierre Lormeus stared at the ruins of a three-story school where adults had been taking classes Tuesday afternoon. The top two floors had fallen intact, and screaming people scrambled out, she said. But the rest of the students were entombed on the bottom floor, dead or soon to be.

"All Tuesday night, up to yesterday, we heard people yelling and groaning," said Lormeus, who runs another school nearby. "Nobody could do anything."

"We need tools," she said. "It's starting to smell."

Most big buildings in Port-au-Prince were built like cheap parking structures. Columns held up big slabs of concrete. The walls were thin cinder block. When they fell, they became unforgiving mountains to dig through. Offices, apartments, schoolrooms, all collapsed to mere inches.

Remarkably, for a metropolitan area of several million people just 700 miles from Miami, heavy machinery seemed almost nonexistent. Most people didn't even have picks or hammers. In the absence of tools, they resorted to using the rubble itself and pieces of rebar -- or just their hands -- to dig through thick slabs of concrete.

Although some foreign medical crews quickly set up field hospitals for Haitians injured in Tuesday's earthquake -- Doctors Without Borders said it had treated more than 1,000 people -- some of the more visible international rescue efforts seemed focused on foreign victims.

An American rescue crew from Virginia pried loose the wreckage of the United Nations mission headquarters in what had been the six-story Christopher Hotel, now a one-story pile of debris. Using an excavator and crane, the Americans, along with a Chinese rescue crew, were able to find about a dozen survivors, who were taken to a U.N. hospital.

The American rescuers next went to the Hotel Montana, a nexus for the international community in Port-au-Prince.

Most Haitians saw none of this. For the poor, the desperate, the bereaved, there was little help. The Haitian government, for the most part, was a no-show.

In the hillside neighborhood of Petionville, men snaked down a deep street with a wooden coffin on their shoulders, dancing and singing as they went.

Hundreds of bodies lay in the parking lot of the General Hospital morgue, waiting for families to identify and remove them. Few people have the financial means to bury them.

Along L'Ouverture Boulevard, named for the leader of Haiti's revolution, an exodus of sorts was underway. Lines of cars and trucks, three or four abreast in a two-lane thoroughfare, crawled at a noisy snail's pace. Stranded in the interminable, fume-choked jams were overcrowded buses and trucks with sheet-wrapped corpses in the back. Vehicles were stacked high with salvaged goods, mostly mattresses, bundles of clothing, a suitcase or two, as people fled.

The nearly complete collapse of the country's communications network made it difficult to know what conditions awaited the refugees as they made their way to the countryside or smaller cities. But given how close the quake's epicenter was to Port-au-Prince, it seemed reasonable to expect that the situation might be better elsewhere.

But for most people, fleeing was not an option.

At the bottom of a hill, Haitians were sleeping under tarps in Place Canape Vert, still wary of what the earth might do. In a country that has seen horrific spates of violence, the toll was unprecedented.

They were furious, though not surprised, that they were left to themselves to dig out the trapped, haul off the dead, beg for help for the dying.

Hubert Benjamin, 59, blamed his own government and figured that it would squander any international aid it received.

"I know if they give it to them to give to the Haitians . . . I know already they won't give it to us.

"Look at how many people die here on the ground. No one comes to see them. Right now there is still someone crying in a building down there."

He led a reporter up a bank of rubble onto the roof of a collapsed school. A dozen men were holed up in a cave with a small hand pick and a crowbar. The five floors of the school had sandwiched into one, like the strata of a canyon wall.

In a little pocket of air between the layers, a woman was alive. They heard her knocking a rock against the concrete about 8 a.m. They started digging.

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