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Haiti earthquake: With aid groups already there, relief efforts ramp up quickly

The International Red Cross estimates as many as three million people may have been left homeless by Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti. With daylight, a clearer assessment of the scale the challenge ahead.

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Pooja Bhatia, a correspondent for the Institute of Current World Affairs in Port-Au-Prince, says that houses have been flattened – including those next to hers – and that telephone lines are down and transportation cut off. But she says people are not panicked. There is “lots of singing actually and waiting,” she said via e-mail Tuesday night. “Many are outside, under the stars.”

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Bernice Robertson, a senior analyst in Haiti for the International Crisis Group (ICG), said in an e-mail that her colleague “observed major damage to several buildings, which crumbled along the Delmas Road, a major street in the metropolitan area. He observed scores of people injured who could not help themselves. The police and [UN group] MINUSTAH are out in their numbers but the situation is overwhelming,” she wrote.

 In Washington, US officials held an emergency meeting on its response. “We stand ready to assist the people of Haiti,” President Obama said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “the United States is offering our full assistance to Haiti and others in the region. We will be providing both civilian and military disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.”

Ms. Furst Frank says the response will be slowed by the absence of a commercial market in the country – such as a network of megastores to support recovery efforts – and few government resources. “Haiti is extremely vulnerable to any disaster because the population lives so close to the edge,” she says.

But the nonprofit infrastructure in place to help Haiti’s woes will certainly make a difference. Special UN envoy Bill Clinton has worked over the past year to coordinate efforts of local grass-roots organization, she says. Haiti has also long been dependent on foreign aid and nongovernmental organizations. UNICEF has been working in Haiti since 1949. Doctors Without Borders has teams on the ground. USAID said it will be sending up to 72 people to help in rescue and recovery efforts.

And peace-keeping missions will also be crucial. “The UN peacekeeping force will give Haiti an advantage,” says Mark Schneider, the senior vice president for the ICG in Washington. “It permits them to respond relatively quickly.”