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5.9 aftershock jolts Haiti, unnerves residents

Damage from the latest quake appears limited. Relief efforts are making progress in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where an exodus continues amid signs that commerce is being revived.

January 21, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson and Joe Mozingo and Ken Ellingwood

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Mexico City -- A sharp aftershock jolted earthquake survivors from tent camps and hospital beds across Haiti's capital on Wednesday, but relief efforts showed small signs of progress. Commerce began to revive, and U.S. troops working from a golf green and a stadium added muscle to the aid distribution network.

The magnitude 5.9 aftershock that hit just after 6 a.m. about 35 miles from Port-au-Prince appeared to have inflicted limited injuries and damage. But an eerie cry rose up through the tent camps that many people now call home. Aid workers and soldiers scrambled into open air.

"I was on my belly yelling, 'Jesus!' " said Bris Netila, 58, who was sleeping in an encampment in the Bourdon neighborhood that houses as many as 25,000 people. With images of devastation seared into her memory, Netila found that her legs trembled too much to hold her up.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders reported that patients at the Choscal Hospital were so frightened that they had to be moved outdoors to tents. Surgeons stayed inside and kept operating.

People continued to flee Port-au-Prince by almost every possible conveyance: cars, buses, boats. Most were heading to the countryside in hopes of finding better conditions, but there was concern that small outlying communities might not be able to handle the sudden influx.

For those who remained, the relief effort appeared to be making some progress.

A large downtown grocery store reopened with limited hours, plus a dozen armed guards who kept the number of shoppers to 20 at a time.

"We need to treat our customers well," said Tony Bouassi, 43, the store owner. "They are human beings like us, and we're doing our best to get them back on their feet."

He said he was extending credit to regular customers he could recognize.

Bouassi said he got his first shipment of bread from a local baker, though it was only 200 of the 2,000 loaves he ordered. "He promised me 1,000 loaves tomorrow," he said.

A group of prominent businessmen called the Economic Forum announced measures to restore basic services and open employment centers.

The group, which sprang from a mission to Haiti last year by former President Clinton, said that banks will open Saturday, giving Haitians their first major access to cash since the Jan. 12 quake. Withdrawals will be limited to the equivalent of $2,500 and no more than five customers will be admitted at a time. Haiti is among the countries receiving the highest levels of remittances, making banks, along with money-transfer businesses, a lifeline for millions.

About a dozen people gathered Wednesday outside the C.A.M. Transfer office, trying to persuade cashiers to stay open past their 4 p.m. closing time. One was Pierre Mary Olman, a 48-year-old mother of six who has been living in a tent camp. She had come to collect money sent by an aunt in Canada but would have to return today.

The Economic Forum said the United Nations mission had agreed to post guards outside all banks.

The group also said 30% of the city's gasoline stations were functioning and 80% of the cellphone grid was working.

"We will do everything possible to avoid black market" price gouging, said Maxime Charles, one of the entrepreneurs.

The group's emerging high-profile role in Haiti's recovery shows the extent to which the government, in effect dismantled by the quake, is unable to take an active lead, and indicates that the business groups that have always controlled Haiti will continue to do so.

The U.N. World Food Program said it had delivered about a million ready-to-eat meals in and around Port-au-Prince and hoped to provide 10 million more in the next week. It said deliveries have been hindered by a shortage of security escorts and injuries to workers unloading food from its warehouses during the last two days.

"Getting food and water and other necessary supplies to the surviving population -- and medical care to injured survivors -- is proving in many ways to be more difficult than digging through the damaged buildings to rescue people who were trapped in the ruins," said Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization, which is helping in the relief effort.

"Are we satisfied with the job we're doing? Definitely not," Andrus said in a statement.

He said the aid push has been complicated by the huge number of survivors, the road and telephone systems, which were weak before the quake, and the large number of aid groups and governments involved in the effort.

The U.S. Army had two major aid distribution points in operation.

On the withered green of the Petionville Club, a country club next to the American ambassador's residence in the hills of Bourdon, helicopters landed every five minutes to drop off food and water. On the hillside below, thousands of Haitians were sleeping under tents made of sheets, sticks and precious few tarps.

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