Haitian earthquake relief: Neighbors help neighbors as aid trickles in

As the dust settles in Port-au-Prince, Haitians dig loved ones out of the rubble - and wait for relief. Concerns of looting mount.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
People gather around a destroyed seven-story office and apartment building in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. Troops and planeloads of food and medicine streamed into Haiti to aid a traumatized nation still rattled by aftershocks from the catastrophic earthquake.
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters
People gather near makeshift shelters set up after Tuesday's earthquake in Port-au-Prince Thursday.

At every turn in Haiti's beleaguered capital, Port-au-Prince, there is a sense of anxious waiting, sometimes quiet, sometimes frantic - for water, news of loved ones, or a way out of the country.

At one street corner, a horde converges on a seven-story building that had collapsed entirely while three men scramble to lift a section of concrete floor off a man buried and dead underneath. When a bulldozer comes, residents panic. The entire structure could collapse and swallow up this patch of Port-au-Prince as have so many other former buildings across this city of two million.

"We lost 10 employees and three are still in there,” says Tarek Bakri, the owner of the building, who lived on the top floor.

The destruction here is enormous two days after a 7.0 earthquake hit 15 miles from the capital, killing an estimated tens of thousands of people and injuring hundreds of thousands more.

Entire blocks are flattened. A corpse lies alone as residents shuffle past, still stunned from the past 48 hours.

"We need everything right now," says police officer Sylvaince Miguel. He's one of some 9,000 police in this entire country of 10 million, by far the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Limited food and water

As limited food and water grow more scarce, many are concerned about what's to come.

Parking lots and fields have become impromptu settlements. Clothes hang on the intricate wrought iron gate of a church as if it were a clothesline.

Jean-Noel Coute is living on a blanket in a field next to Port-au-Prince's international airport with his wife and four kids. There, residents, who had scheduled flights out of the country, are waiting to leave, even though the airport is expected to be closed to outgoing commercial flights for two more days.

Others, like Mr. Coute, have lost everything and have turned the park into a temporary neighborhood. Many sing hymns.

So far, aid workers are scarce

While UN trucks patrol the streets handing out emergency biscuits and water-purification tablets, many residents complain that government and international relief workers seem unevenly dispersed.

“It seems that they are hiding,” says Paul Cormier, who runs an orphanage.

Assistance is pouring in from all over the world, but the distribution of aid and movement of aid workers, doctors, and rescue workers, have been stymied so far by the complete lack of infrastructure left in the wake of Tuesday's earthquake. Cellphone networks are still down, crippling crucial communication, and many roads are blocked by rubble or people left homeless.

"It's easy to wholesale [relief materials] to the ports," former Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN, "but how do you retail it out?"

Neighbor helping neighbor

In the many areas where no relief has arrived, the only help comes from individual efforts like those of Mr. Cormier, at the orphanage.

When the quake hit, he hung onto a tree for his life. "It felt like a freight train was underneath,” he says. The nearby hospital was damaged and the doctors and nurses left to search for and help their own families.

With his children and staff safe, he’s been trolling the street on his motorbike performing triage.

“I am happy to be a part of this recovery," he says. "I love Haiti.”

Looting looms as a concern

Fears of looting and violence are growing.

Mr. Bakri, who also runs an advertising agency and a cellphone distribution company, says that after his building collapsed, all the furniture that remained intact was stolen. He says he's lost $550,000 in equipment and that he paid $800,000 for the building.

He’s not sure if he’s going to rebuild. For now, he’s just mourning his losses.

One of his best employees was a janitor who worked in the building for 10 years. His was the body that the three men were trying to dig out.

 “He was a good man,” says Bakri.

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