Port-Au-Prince: A flood of food, water and US troops flowed toward Haiti on Saturday as donors squabbled over how to reach hungry, haggard earthquake survivors still trying to claw others from ruined buildings before the dying became the dead.
Haiti's government alone has already recovered 20,000 bodies — not counting those recovered by independent agencies or relatives themselves, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said. He said a final toll of 100,000 dead would "seem to be the minimum".
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected in Port-au-Prince on Saturday, to confer with President Rene Preval and US and international officials.
She said officials are in a "race against time" before anxiety and anger plunge Port-au-Prince into lawlessness.
The US military operating Haiti's damaged, clogged main airport said it can now handle 90 flights a day, but that wasn't enough to cope with all the planes sent by foreign donors and governments, prompting some to send help by land or by sea.
France's Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet said that he had filed an official complaint to the US government after two French planes, one carrying a field hospital, were denied permission to land.
A plane carrying the prime ministers of two Caribbean nations also was forced to turn back late Friday due to a lack of space at the airport, the Caricom trade bloc announced.
Haitian President Rene Preval urged donors to avoid arguments.
"This is an extremely difficult situation. We must keep our cool to do coordination and not to throw accusations at each other," Preval said after emerging from a meeting with donor groups and nations at a dilapidated police station that serves as his temporary headquarters due to the destruction of the National Palace and many ministries.
Despite the high-level tension, there were growing signs that foreign aid and rescue workers were getting to the people most in need.
Crowds of Haitians thronged around foreign workers shoveling through piles of wreckage at shattered buildings throughout the city, using sniffer dogs, shovels and in some cases heavy earth moving equipment.
On a street in the heavily damaged downtown area, the spade of a massive bulldozer quickly filled up with dead bodies headed for a morgue and immediate burial. Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said that disposing of bodies had become a top priority.
"Sadly, we have to bring everybody to mass graves because we are racing against a possible epidemic," Bellerive said. Haitians already have been piling bodies and burning them.
The US Southern Command said it now has 24 helicopters flying relief missions — many from warships off the coast — with 4,200 military personnel involved and 6,300 more due by Monday.
But there was still little sign of any aid in parts of the capital four days after the quake, and scattered signs that the desperate — or the criminal — were taking things into their own hands.
A water delivery truck driver said he was attacked in one of the city's slums. There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street.
A photographer saw one looter haul a corpse from a coffin at a city cemetery and then drive away with the box.
"I don't know how much longer we can hold out," said Dee Leahy, a lay missionary from St Louis, Missouri, who was working with nuns handing out provisions from their small stockpile. "We need food, we need medical supplies, we need medicine, we need vitamins and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently."
UN spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs said that the Haiti earthquake was "one of the biggest disasters we've ever had to face".
The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 earthquake. While workers are burying some in mass graves, countless bodies remain unclaimed in the streets and the limbs of the dead protrude from crushed schools and homes.
Residents paint toothpaste around their nostrils and beg passers-by for surgical masks to cut the smell.
"If the government still exists and the United Nations is around, I hope they can help us get the bodies out," said Sherine Pierre, a 21-year-old communications student whose sister died when her house collapsed.
A third of Haiti's 9 million people may be in need of aid. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Program was providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people "several times a day".
"Obviously, that is only a drop in the bucket in the face of the massive need, but the agency will be scaling up to feed approximately 1 million people within 15 days and 2 million people within a month," he said.
The effort to get aid to the victims has been stymied by blocked roads, congestion at the airport, limited equipment and other obstacles. UN peacekeepers patrolling the capital said public anger was rising and warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.
International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said a convoy with a field hospital and medical workers was heading into Haiti by road Saturday from the Dominican Republic because "it's not possible to fly anything into Port-au-Prince right now. The airport is completely congested."
The World Health Organization has said eight hospitals in Port-au-Prince were destroyed or damaged, severely curtailing treatment available for the injured.
Officials said damage to the seaport also is a problem for bringing in aid. The arrival Friday of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson helped immediately by taking pressure off the airport. Within hours, an 82nd Airborne Division rapid response unit was handing out food, water and medical supplies from two cargo pallets outside the airport.
Others tried to help in smaller ways.
Milero Cedamou, the 33-year-old owner of a small water delivery company, twice drove his small tanker truck to a tent camp where thousands of homeless people are living. Hundreds clustered around to fill their plastic buckets.
"This is a crisis of unspeakable magnitude; it's normal for every Haitian to help," Cedamou said. "This is not charity."
Medical teams from other nations set up makeshift hospitals to tend to the critically injured — who were still appearing.
"We have the hope we can find more people," said Chilean Maj Rodrigo Vasquez, whose teams were trying to save those trapped at the Hotel Montana. But others weren't as hopeful. One Haitian woman sitting outside of the destroyed hotel spoke on her cell phone and sobbed. "No one's alive in there," she said in Creole.
And soon, it will be too late in any case.
"Beyond three or four days without water, they'll be pretty ill," said Dr Michael VanRooyen of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston. "Around three days would be where you would see people start to succumb."
Still, there were improbable triumphs.
"It's a miracle," said Anne-Marie Morel, raising her arms to the sky after a neighbour was found alive in the rubble of a home. If one person could be resuscitated from the utter destruction of this street, there remained hope that many other could still be found alive, she said.
"Nonsense, there is no God and no miracle," shouted back Remi Polevard, another neighbour, who said his five children were somewhere under the nearby debris.
"How could he do this to us?" Polevard yelled.
First Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010, 22:36