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Haiti earthquake relief: Aid workers struggle to provide help

Haiti earthquake relief workers say they are hampered by quake's devastation. All three of Medecins sans Frontieres' (MSF) centers in Haiti were crushed. Workers couldn't drive around because Haitians were sleeping on the roads. But the international airport is now open for aid flights.

By Matthew ClarkStaff writer / January 13, 2010

Buildings are seen damaged in the neighborhood of Petionville, Port-Au-Prince shortly after an earthquake hit Haiti Tuesday evening.

Nabil Hijjawi via Your View/Reuters

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As Haitians pick through rubble in the wake of last night's 7.0 earthquake, aid groups around the world are mobilizing at a breakneck pace to help the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation recover.

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The good news: Many aid groups have operations in Haiti, which has long been crippled by political instability and was pounded by a series of hurricanes in 2008. But the bad news is that many of the buildings housing their operations have been crushed by the temblor, and they were not immediately able to fly in more aid, because Haiti's international airport in the capital, Port-au-Prince was closed.

"The level of care we can provide is severely limited," says Toronto-based Paul McPhun, part of Medecins sans Frontieres' (MSF) global emergency management team for Haiti. "Already things are getting overwhelmed. We're struggling to manage a quite high case load, and it's very difficult to follow what exactly is going on from here."

All three of MSF's centers in Haiti were crushed so badly they cannot be used, says Mr. McPhun, adding that MSF staff couldn't drive to help anyone, because "people were sleeping on the roads where we would have liked to have traveled."

Help is on the way, says McPhune, adding that MSF's been flooded with calls to help and that some 70 specialists are ready to board chartered planes to Port-au-Prince.

"We have no shortage of volunteers and that's moving very rapidly," he says. "The challenge is how to get them there."

MSF is respected worldwide as one of the fastest and most efficient relief groups, and works in some of the world's most remote areas.

The airport remained closed this morning, but the United Nations said is now “fully operational” and open to relief flights.

Jim Prosser, spokesman for Direct Relief International, which has been in working in Haiti since 1964, says his group is currently distributing disaster relief materials as fast as possible.

Ironically, he says, the group had a shipment of emergency supplies arrive in Port-au-Prince yesterday for regular work recovery after last year's hurricanes.

He says he's "very encouraged that the airport is up and running" and that his group has sent an emergency response coordinator who will arrive today.

President Obama promised an all-out humanitarian effort, saying: “We have to be there for them in their hour of need.”

Dozens of other nations also said they would start sending in aid workers and rescue teams. Caribbean neighbor Cuba said its field hospitals in Haiti had already treated hundreds of victims.

For those distributing aid now, there's already serious concern about looting. Aid groups have been mobbed in Haiti during previous rescue efforts, due mainly to desperation.

"Last year our experience was that there were some real security concerns in the wake of the hurricane," says McPhun. "We expect the same this time."

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