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‘Comfort’ Hospital Ship Arrives to Bolster Haiti Response

January 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Relief efforts were ramped up today in Haiti with the arrival of the U.S. Navy hospital ship "Comfort," which is equipped with 550 medical staff. Margaret Warner speaks with NPR reporter Jason Beaubien for the latest on the relief efforts in the Port-au-Prince area.

JEFFREY BROWN: International efforts to relieve the suffering in Haiti were boosted today. The U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort arrived off Port-au-Prince with 550 medical staff on board.

And the first patients were transferred by helicopter for treatment. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she’s not satisfied with how fast things are moving, but understands the difficulties.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Every day, we get better. Today’s better than yesterday. Tomorrow will be better than today. But there were so many challenges that had to be addressed all at once. The other way of looking at it is that it’s really remarkable how much we have gotten done.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the ground, Margaret Warner spoke a short time ago with Jason Beaubien of National Public Radio. He is in Port-au-Prince.

MARGARET WARNER: Jason Beaubien, welcome. Thank you for being with us.

Tell us, first, about what this latest, biggest aftershock felt like this morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, National Public Radio: This one really jolted the city. This is the most powerful aftershock we have had since — since the quake last week. It jolted this city awake. I went out in the streets right after that.

Many people are sleeping out in the streets, and I was talking to people that were sleeping out on the pavement. And they were saying that they were praying to God that this wasn’t going to be a quake like the one that hit here last week.

Fortunately, it wasn’t. We were expecting more damage, possibly more buildings to have fallen on people. In terms of my reporting, going out and talking to people, did not find any more buildings that had fallen on people. There were some landslides. There were some bit of debris that had fallen over. But, overall, it seems like they get through this OK and there wasn’t that much extra damage from this aftershock this morning.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the latest, from what you have been able to see, about the pace of aid delivery? Secretary Clinton said today, well, every day is better. She said, today is better than yesterday.

Is it?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Today is certainly better than yesterday.

But, in terms of the amount of aid that’s actually getting out, it’s still not reaching all the people that need it, the hundreds of thousands of people that are desperately in need of food and clean water and shelter.

I went out and saw the operation that the 82nd Airborne is doing out on the golf course. And, today, it really hit its stride. Yesterday, they had a bunch of problems. They ran out of food. They had this mass of about 20,000 people just storming up the hill. And it turned into, you know, almost a fiasco yesterday.

Today, they had the helicopters coming in, Seahawks, these massive Sea Stallion, Navy Sea Stallion helicopters were coming in. Boom, they were landing on the ground. They were unloading it fast. Another helicopter was coming in right behind it. The — the food was moving out, the water was moving out.

They had 50 people a minute moving through these lines, 50 people a minute getting packages of food, two bottles of water each. And in terms of in this city right now, this is the most impressive aid operation that I have seen in terms of getting food into the hands of people who need it. And, today, it really hit its stride, for the first time.

MARGARET WARNER: And what is the security situation like in the city now? You had a dramatic piece yesterday about witnessing the looting of the main commercial district. What’s it like now?

JASON BEAUBIEN: You’re getting sporadic looting. It’s happening in different parts at different times. This morning, it really ramped up down in the commercial district, flared up in several parts.

I saw a supermarket that was getting looted. There was a huge crowd, probably a couple hundred people. They were climbing over the building that I would be terrified to even step on, and they were climbing in through the ceiling, into this supermarket, and pulling out whatever they could, food, beer, plastic chairs.

And then people were coming out into the streets and then fighting over it. It’s really chaotic. And I talked to people down there, and they’re very up-front. We don’t have anything, they say. And we’re just going to go into these shops and get it, and even go into these buildings which are incredibly dangerous and attempt to get food, get water, get what they need.

Obviously, there are some — some criminal elements as well that would like to steal everything that they could, but many people that are involved in this are simply doing it out of desperation.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have heard reports, including your own, about also people fleeing Port-au-Prince and going out into the countryside. How extensive is that? And from your own travels from the Dominican Republic to the city, you have seen the countryside. What are they likely to find once they get out there?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Quite frankly, as soon as you get out of Port-au-Prince heading towards the Dominican Republic, things are fairly stable and fairly normal.

The question is whether the Haitian — the Haitian countryside can support hundreds of thousands of people from the capital fleeing out into these areas. And, certainly, there’s not the infrastructure to do that. Certainly, there’s not the food and the water and the basic supplies that people need out there.

So, that’s going to be a question. It’s really hard to gauge, quite frankly, how many people are fleeing the city. I was down at the bus station in Cite Soleil, and many people were trying to get on buses, trying to get out. But, in terms of numbers, it’s really, really difficult to say.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, briefly, how are ordinary Haitians getting information? I mean, you mentioned — one of your pieces mentioned rumors. Is it by rumor, or is there some organized way, through radio or something else, to really get reliable information to people?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Communication remains a huge problem. You know, there’s no newspapers. Some of the radio stations are functioning. People are getting information through that. However, many people don’t have radios. Many people are simply sleeping out on the streets, and so they don’t have access even to radios.

So, rumors are flying around. It’s certainly one of the ways that information is spreading, but, clearly, it’s not the best. It’s a huge problem in terms of the — the information that’s being — being moved out to the people.

And, at the same token, we’re not hearing much from the Haitian government, from President Preval, on what the way forward is here. And, so, that’s a big question, and it’s something that people are — are not get any solid information about.

MARGARET WARNER: Jason Beaubien of NPR, thank you so much.

JASON BEAUBIEN: You’re welcome, Margaret.