A massive international air and sea lift of aid to earthquake-devastated Haiti is struggling to overcome obstacles in delivering rescue teams and emergency help to the more than 2 million people in need of immediate assistance.

Confronted by serious bottlenecks caused by wrecked runways, port facilities and roads, aid experts were warning it could be days before the relief effort gets fully under way, even as thousands of people remained unaccounted for beneath the rubble of Tuesday’s quake and bodies were piled in the ruined streets.

The Red Cross has estimated that 45,000-50,000 people were been killed in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake.

Aid agencies fear the crucial 72-hour window to find survivors would be missed if the help did not start getting through. Compounding the desperate problems, America’s civil aviation authority was forced to halt planes leaving the U.S. for Haiti at the request of the Haitian government because there was no more room for aircraft to land and no fuel for the planes to return.

U.S. officials said Port-au-Prince’s airport was saturated and ground staff could not unload and move supplies into surrounding areas quickly enough to open up more space at the airport.

Among those unable to land on Thursday was a team of 35 British rescue workers, including fire-fighters and doctors from Manchester and Lincolnshire, who spent 30 minutes circling above Port-au-Prince airport and were forced to turn back after they were running out of fuel.

Eyewitness accounts from Haiti described bodies decomposing in the streets, while the few hospitals not destroyed were overwhelmed with casualties. Others described whole neighbourhoods destroyed. “Many roads are blocked by fallen buildings. Many people walking around with open and serious wounds,” said a Port-au-Prince resident

“The deceased are being dragged to the side of roads, covered in sheets and left. We don’t live in the hardest hit areas but even so there are many bodies.”

As a sense of crisis grew over the slow speed of the emergency response, Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N.’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, said: “The priority is to find survivors. We are working against the clock.”

The huge problems confronting the emergency efforts were disclosed even as U.S. President Barack Obama appealed to his immediate predecessors, George Bush and Bill Clinton, to help co-ordinate the U.S. efforts to help Haiti, in what Mr. Obama described as “one of the largest relief efforts in our recent history.”

His comments came as he ordered the deployment of thousands of troops and civilian aid workers and promised $100 million in relief funds.

The U.S. army and marines are sending some 5,500 troops while more than six U.S. military ships are being sent, including the aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson. Britain, which has also promised £6 million in immediate aid, was among a host of countries pledging to send assistance, including China, France and Australia.

One of the most pressing problems the effort will have to overcome is the damage to the docks.

At the airport, the main concourse was hit by the earthquake with the number of working runways reduced from three to one. The road route from the Dominican Republic was also proving problematic, with a key bridge on the route damaged and preventing large convoys crossing. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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