Hungry, haggard survivors clamoured — and sometimes fought — for food and water on Saturday as donors squabbled over how to get aid into Haiti and rescuers waged an increasingly improbable battle to free the dying before they become 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 told The Associated Press. He said a final toll of 100,000 dead would “seem to be the minimum.”
There were growing signs that foreign aid and rescue workers were getting to the people most in need — even those buried deep beneath collapsed buildings — while others struggled to cope with the countless bodies still left on the streets.
Crowds of Haitians thronged around foreign workers shovelling through piles of wreckage at shattered buildings throughout the city, using sniffer dogs, shovels and in some cases heavy earth-moving equipment.
Searchers poked a camera on a wire thorough a hole at the collapsed Hotel Montana and spotted three people who were still alive, and they heard the voice of a woman speaking French, said Ecuadorean Red Cross worker David Betancourt.
The urgency was growing, however: On a back street in Port-au-Prince, about a half dozen young men ripped water pipes off walls to suck out the small amount of water trapped inside.
“This is very, very bad, but I am too thirsty,” said Pierre Louis Delmar.
In Washington, President Barack Obama joined with his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to appeal for donations to help Haiti and he sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Caribbean nation.
“We stand united with the people of Haiti, who have shown such incredible resilience, and we will help them to recover and to rebuild,” Mr. Obama vowed.
Mr. Bellerive said an estimated 300,000 people are living on the streets in port-au-Prince and “Getting them water, and food, and a shelter is our top priority.”
The U.S. military operating Haiti’s damaged 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 circling overhead in hopes of winning one of the few spots available on the tarmac.
France’s Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet said he had complained to the U.S. 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,” Mr. Preval said after emerging from a meeting with donor groups and nations at a dilapidated police station that serves as his temporary headquarters.
With the National Palace and many ministries destroyed, Mr. Preval’s Cabinet meets in a circle of plastic chairs under an open sky.
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. Mr. Bellerive told AP that disposing of bodies had become crucial.
“Sadly, we have to bring everybody to mass graves because we are racing against a possible epidemic,” told AP. Haitians already have been piling bodies and burning them.
Many in the city have painted toothpaste around their nostrils and beg passers-by for surgical masks to cut the smell.
The U.S. Southern Command said it 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 with aid still scarce in many areas, there were 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.
An AP 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.”
U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the disaster is the most challenging the U.N. has faced in terms of resources needed. She said there was so much damage to local government and infrastructure that is harder for relief agencies to work than it was after the Asian tsunami of 2004.
The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday’s magnitude-7.0 earthquake. The Pan American Health Organisation estimated the toll at 50,000 to 100,000. A third of Haiti’s 9 million people may be in need of aid.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Programme was providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people, but acknowledged it was “only a drop in the bucket in the face of the need. He said the agency hopes to feed 1 million people within 15 days and 2 million people within a month.”
Troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division began setting up an aid station on a golf course in an affluent part of the city, but they had no supplies to hand out yet and Capt. John Hartsock said it would be another two days before they could start distributing food and water.
“We’ve got to wait until we’ve got enough established so we can hand it out in a civilized fashion,” Capt. Hartsock said.
Many, though, cannot wait.
A violent scuffle broke out among several hundred people jostling to be first in line as three U.S. military helicopters were landing at the golf course with food and water.
The chopper pilots decided it was too dangerous to remain and took off with their precious cargo still inside.’
“People are so desperate for food that they are going crazy,” said Henry Ounche, an accountant who was among the crowd.
Scuffles also erupted at a downtown football stadium transformed into a rescue center as U.S. Navy helicopters dropped food rations and Gatorade. About 200 youths fought each other to get at the aid, and some threw stones.
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 and hundreds of Haitians fled east toward the Dominican Republic looking for care.
More than 300 earthquake victims were crammed into a 30-bed hospital in the border town of Jimani, many sharing mattresses along crowded corridors, their arms drinking up IV fluids.
“The only thing left is to pray for God to save my son,” said a weeping Jean-Paul Dieudone, who came to the border seeking help for his 6-year-old son after his wife and other son died in the earthquake.
Damage to the seaport also has hindered aid efforts and the U.S. Navy said it has sent a salvage ship to assess ways of repairing it while using temporary piers. The U.S. since Friday has used ships such as the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as a base for aid operations from offshore.
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,” Mr. Cedamou said. “This is not charity.”
Medical teams from a dozen 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 were pessimistic. A Haitian woman sobbed outside of the destroyed hotel and said on her cell phone, “No one’s alive in there.”
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?” Mr. Polevard yelled.