BY MARK STEVENSON and EVENS SANON
LES CAYES, Haiti (AP) – Aid to victims of a major earthquake and tropical storm began to flow faster to Haiti on Thursday, but the Caribbean nation’s ingrained poverty, insecurity and lack of basic infrastructure still posed major challenges the procurement of food and urgent medical care for those in need.
Private relief supplies and supplies from the U.S. government and others arrived in the southwestern peninsula, where the quake killed more than 2,100 people over the weekend. But the hardship was extreme, made worse by the rain from Tropical Storm Grace, and people became increasingly frustrated with the slow pace.
Adding to the problems, a large hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where many of the injured were sent, was closed on Thursday for a two-day closure to protest the kidnapping of two doctors, including one of the few in the country orthopedic surgeons.
The kidnappings dealt a blow to attempts to control the criminal violence that has threatened disaster relief in the capital.
Haiti’s civil protection agency increased the death toll from the earthquake to 2,189 late Wednesday and said 12,268 people were injured. It is estimated that more than 300 people are still missing, said Serge Chery, head of civil defense in the southern province, which also includes the badly affected small port town of Les Cayes.
The 7.2 magnitude earthquake damaged or destroyed more than 100,000 homes and left around 30,000 families homeless, according to official estimates. Hospitals, schools, offices and churches were also torn down or badly damaged.
US relief efforts have been building since the first hours after the earthquake. On Thursday, 10 US military helicopters carried search and rescue teams, medical personnel and relief supplies stationed by the US Agency for International Development following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
A naval ship, the USS Arlington, is expected to arrive this weekend, said Admiral Craig Faller, who oversees the military response as the commander of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command.
“We have the momentum now,” said Faller. “We have the assets in place. We understood the logistics. “
The US government is still working with Haitian authorities and others to determine the extent of the damage and casualties. Faller said an assessment by the US Geological Survey predicts there could be more than 10,000 deaths.
One of the US helicopters landed in Les Cayes on Thursday with equipment, medication and volunteers, including some from the aid organization Samaritan’s Purse. Monte Oitker, a biomedical technician for the organization, said the volunteers are ready to run a standalone hospital unit capable of performing a variety of orthopedic procedures.
Distributing aid to the thousands of homeless could be more of a challenge.
Chery said officials hope they can start clearing places where homes have been destroyed so residents can build makeshift shelters.
“It will be easier to distribute relief supplies when people live at their addresses and not in tents,” he said.
While some officials have suggested ending the search for survivors so that heavy machinery can clear all the debris, Prime Minister Ariel Henry did not appear ready to move on at this point.
“Some of our citizens are still under the rubble. We have teams of foreigners and Haitians working on it, ”he said.
He also called for unity.
“We have to put our heads together to rebuild Haiti,” said Henry. “The country is physically and psychologically destroyed.”
Tensions over the slow distribution of aid have become increasingly apparent in the area hardest hit by the quake on Saturday. At the small airport in Les Cayes, people crowded a fence fence Wednesday as relief supplies were loaded into trucks and police fired warning shots to disperse crowds of young men.
Angry crowds also gathered in front of collapsed buildings in the city, demanding plans to provide makeshift housing after Grace’s heavy rain. In Les Cayes, too, 22 prisoners fled the prison after the quake, said the spokeswoman for the national police, Marie-Michelle Verrier.
International aid workers said hospitals in the hardest hit areas are mostly unable to work, which is why many patients have to be moved to the capital for treatment. But reaching Port-au-Prince from the southwest is difficult under normal conditions due to poor roads and gangs along the route.
Despite an alleged ceasefire following the earthquake, the kidnapping remains a threat – underscored by the arrest of the two doctors who work at the private Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where around 50 earthquake victims were treated.
And another problem emerged in the earthquake-ravaged southern provinces, where national police said villagers were building barricades on the streets to prevent help from getting through, arguing that they too need help.
“For those who block roads in their spare time to keep aid (aid) from getting to the people, you have to wait for the aid to get to you,” Verrier said. She said special police units would be escorting aid deliveries.
So far, the US military has found the streets it needs to open and no security issues have arisen from gangs, Faller said in an interview with The Associated Press. The Arlington will not only have an operations team to treat victims, but also a Marine Corps rapid reaction force that will remain on the ship when not needed.
“You are honestly an insurance policy,” Faller said. “Marines are trained to do this, and they are trained to use force appropriately. And having them around the area is daunting as well. And we want to be ready. “
Jerry Chandler, the head of the national civil protection agency, said the presence of the Haitian police force was “an important step in helping us move aid.”
Chandler said his agency also had boats and helicopters “to bring help and get it to certain areas quickly”.
A group of 18 Colombian volunteer search and rescue workers had to be escorted out of the quake-hit town of Jeremie under police protection after rumors circulated that they were involved in the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The workers sought refuge in a civil defense office Wednesday night and police escorted them to the airport on Thursday.
Moise’s as yet unsolved murder is suspected to have been committed by a group of Colombian mercenaries. Despite what has happened to Colombian rescue workers, Haiti “welcomes anyone who comes to bring help,” said Chandler.
Henry said Wednesday that his administration will seek “not to repeat the history of mismanagement and aid coordination,” a reference to the country’s devastating earthquake in 2010 when the government and international partners struggled amidst the needy to aid widespread destruction and misery.
The Core Group, a coalition of key international diplomats from the United States and other nations that oversees Haiti, said in a statement on Wednesday that its members “are determined to work with national and local authorities to ensure that affected people and areas are provided with adequate assistance received as soon as possible. “
Associate press writer Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.