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Food aid trickles to Haitians as Marines, airborne troops join effort

Buses out of Port-au-Prince are crammed with people being moved to the provinces, while the government tries to function from a yard outside a police station.

January 19, 2010|By Joe Mozingo and Ken Ellingwood
  • Rebecca Brutus, 4, hangs on tight to a package of food for her family.
Rebecca Brutus, 4, hangs on tight to a package of food for her family. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Mexico City -- Thousands more Marines and airborne troops joined the struggle to provide desperate earthquake survivors with food and water on Monday, while Haitian officials sought to move people to the provinces to relieve pressure on the relief effort.

Four ships carrying 2,200 Marines anchored off the coast and started ferrying supplies and personnel to Haiti's capital. A total of 1,100 members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division had arrived in Port-au-Prince by late Monday, about a third of the deployment planned.

Troops are airlifting emergency supplies and the injured, providing logistical support, managing the Port-au-Prince airport and standing by to help provide security amid scattered reports of looting and gunfire in the capital.

The Haitian government mobilized as well as it could to remove the dead, clear debris and move survivors. On the road west out of Port-au-Prince, public buses were filled with people and luggage heading to the provinces.

The government, weak in the best of circumstances, was trying to function from a yard outside a police station near the airport. Many government buildings in the center of the city -- including the National Palace, Parliament, the health and foreign ministries and Port-au-Prince city hall -- were destroyed.

Looters pilfered from a wholesale food market on the Grand Rue downtown Monday afternoon. U.N. and Haitian police tried to stop them, to no avail.

"The population was throwing stones at us to stop us from preventing the looting," said Gabriel Diallo, a United Nations officer from Guinea. "They said we can't stop them from looting the food because they were hungry."

The looters then burned down the store, sending a black cloud into the air that added one more dystopian element to the scene.

As the police stood by a block away, two gunshots rang out from the main street.

At an industrial park near the airport, U.N. riot police pushed back onlookers as U.S. helicopters landed, presumably with supplies.

The 82nd Airborne carried out its first air drop of food and water in Port-au-Prince. A C-17 cargo plane dropped 40 pallets of water and packaged military meals at a secured drop zone in the city, said Maj. Brian Fickel, a spokesman for the division at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

The food and water were wrapped in canvas and attached to parachutes for the drop. The delivery had to be made away from crowds to avoid injuries, Fickel said. The pallets contained 14,000 gallons of bottled water and 15,000 meals.

Navy helicopters thrummed over the city, but the troops' presence on the ground so far has been limited.

On Sunday, the Navy stopped doing food drops from helicopters because of the chaos it was creating with no security on the ground.

In the suburb of Carrefour on Monday, people gathered in a field where the Navy had done four food drops over the weekend. At 2 p.m. a helicopter circled and then left.

One man said the crowd mobbed the helicopters each time they landed, forcing the Navy crew to dump the boxes of bottled water and military rations from the air.

"People started fighting. They are pulling machetes on each other," he said. "Some of them got some. Some didn't."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed adding 3,500 more U.N. peacekeepers and police to maintain order and protect deliveries of emergency aid.

Ban, who visited Haiti on Sunday, asked the Security Council to approve sending 1,500 more police officers and 2,000 peacekeeping troops to supplement the current contingent of about 9,000. At least 46 U.N. staffers are known to have died in last Tuesday's 7.0 quake, which by some estimates may have killed more than 100,000 people.

U.S. troops will not take on a policing role, and security will remain the primary responsibility of the U.N., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters during a flight to India. But he added that U.S. forces distributing aid have the ability to defend themselves and others.

"Anywhere we deploy out troops they have the authority and right to defend themselves," Gates said. "They also have the right to defend innocent Haitians and other members of the international community if they see something happening."

European Union bodies and member states have offered more than $400 million in relief and recovery aid. The Obama administration has already pledged $100 million in U.S. emergency aid.

In a sign that the relief effort was picking up steam, the U.N. World Food Program said Monday it would hand out 220 tons of ready-to-eat meals to 95,000 Haitians, an increase over the 67,000 people fed a day earlier.

The agency plans to hand out 10 million meals, plus rice and high-energy biscuits, during the next week, and estimates that it will need to provide 100 million meals during the next 30 days.

Josette Sheeran, executive director of the Rome-based agency, said the ability of relief groups to get help to victims is "improving hour by hour," though needs are still massive.

The list of immediate top priorities, she said, included clearing roads; repairing the capital's seaport, which was forced to close because of quake damage; guaranteeing security at food handout points; and getting more trucks and helicopters.

World Food Program officials said they would have to find new warehouses for food supplies in Port-au-Prince because of damage to previous storage facilities caused by aftershocks Sunday.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Times staff writers David Zucchino in Durham, N.C., Tony Perry in San Diego and Julian E. Barnes, en route to India with Secretary Gates, contributed to this report.

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