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U.S., World Assembling Help for Haiti

January 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Kwame Holman reports on how the United States is responding to help Haiti, and then Jeffrey Brown talks to a Los Angeles Times reporter about international efforts on the ground.

KWAME HOLMAN: The scenes of desperation from Haiti preoccupied official Washington from the White House down. President Obama managed to get through to Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, on the telephone this morning.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I pledged America’s continued commitment to the government and the people of Haiti, in the immediate effort to save lives and deliver relief, and in the long-term effort to rebuild.

KWAME HOLMAN: For now, severe damage to the Port-au-Prince harbor made airlifts the only reliable way to get the aid onshore. And helicopters from the newly arrived U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson ferried in their first relief supplies today.

But the city’s badly damaged airport remained a bottleneck. With the control tower disabled, the U.S. military officially took over takeoffs and landings today. These soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division shipped out yesterday, but didn’t set down until late last night, after waiting hours to be cleared to land.

In Washington, the growing desperation in Haiti intensified the focus on the Pentagon’s efforts to get the aid operation into high gear. U.S. military leaders said today there could be 10,000 American troops on the ground in Port-au-Prince and offshore by Monday.

In a morning briefing, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said the military is working as fast as it can.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, joints chiefs chairman: These ships, aircraft and troops also deliver hope, although it seems that supplies and security cannot come quickly enough. And I echo the president’s promise to the people of Haiti that you will not be forsaken and you will not be forgotten.

KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. officials acknowledged the need for secure distribution of aid, amid reports of widespread scavenging and young men and boys roaming the streets with machetes.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said speedy relief will ease tension.

ROBERT GATES: The key is to get the food and the water in there as quickly as possible, so that people don’t, in their desperation, turn to violence or lead to the security situation deteriorating.

And that’s why there’s such a high priority now in — in getting food and water in to people. But, at this point, other than some scavenging and minor looting, our understanding is, the security situation is pretty good.

KWAME HOLMAN: Outside Washington, personnel from the National Naval Medical Center prepared to ship out tomorrow aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort. The center’s commander is Rear Admiral Matthew Nathan.

REAR ADMIRAL MATTHEW NATHAN: The next big concern is, how do you take care of illnesses that could travel from person to person very rapidly and bring the population down? Haiti already has a reservoir of airborne and waterborne illnesses. Our goal is to try to contain those as much as possible, and not allow those to flourish in this destructive environment.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the U.S. military pressed to get its people into Haiti, many U.S. civilians pressed to get out.

MAN: We will see people with American passports one at a time.

MAN: Please — please remain calm.

KWAME HOLMAN: In scenes described as chaotic, some 200 Americans anxiously waved their passports at the Port-au-Prince Airport as they were organized for evacuation.

Late today, Secretary of State Clinton announced she will travel to Haiti tomorrow to size up the situation.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: It’s a race against time in the search and rescue missions. It is a race against time to establish some means for clearing the road, so that more supplies can get in. But, boy, everybody is pushing as hard as they can. So, I think we are making a lot of progress. I just want to make sure we — we move as quickly and effectively as we can.

KWAME HOLMAN: Around the world, charitable organizations began raising funds in earnest to aid the earthquake victims, and cities with major Haitian-American populations joined the effort.

The speaker of the New York City Council made this announcement today.

CHRISTINE QUINN: Starting immediately, New York City municipal employees — that’s 300,000 people — for the next four pay periods will be able to make check-offs on their paycheck, donations to the mayor’s fund to go to relief organizations that are helping in Haiti.

KWAME HOLMAN: Additional fund-raising also is gathering momentum. A celebrity-filled national telethon was in the works. And the president will meet tomorrow with former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to discuss their new effort to promote rebuilding Haiti.

JIM LEHRER: Now to Jeffrey Brown.

He spoke earlier today with Tina Susman of The Los Angeles Times in Port-au-Prince.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tina, thanks for joining us.

You are at the airport, so tell us first what’s the situation there in terms of supplies being able to get in?

TINA SUSMAN: Well, today appears to be the first day that things have really gotten under way here at the airport.

Apparently, up until this morning, they were having problems landing planes full of people and supplies because of crowding on the runway. But, just today, there have been, for instance, several cargo planes bringing people in, among them, 250 doctors, nurses and medical experts, including veterinarians, sent out from the Health and Human Services Department by the State Department. They just arrived this afternoon.

And aid agencies are expecting some cargo planes to come in. In fact, World Vision said they are expecting 18 metric tons of those supplies to arrive on a cargo plane this afternoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give us a sense, if you would, about how hard it is to get around the city for you, for aid workers, for anybody at this point.

TINA SUSMAN: Extraordinarily hard.

In fact, everybody I have spoken to, the aid workers, the people who just arrived from Health and Human Services, they all say the same thing: We can get the supplies in, but how do we get them out to the people that need them?

And, as one — I got here Wednesday morning, and I have been roaming around the city ever since. It’s extraordinarily hard. There’s rubble in the streets. I mean, Port-au-Prince is a hard place to travel in on a good day. And you can imagine what it must be like now. Plus, you have got fuel shortages.

A lot of people have cars, but a lot of people are walking, mainly because the lines to get gasoline, if you can even find it, are over a mile long. And that is not an exaggeration. So, that is going to be a real problem.

And everybody seems to be thinking that’s the next obstacle to overcome. Now they have got the airport up and running, getting supplies in. How do they get them out?

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about the security situation, because we’re getting reports of groups of young men even armed with machetes? There’s reports from the government talking about potential violence as their biggest fear at this point.

Can you see any of that at this point as you travel around? Can you feel it?

TINA SUSMAN: Well, I can certainly feel the frustration and the sense, the — the concern that, if aid doesn’t get out soon, very soon, as in, like, the next 24 hours, there could be some eruptions of violence.

But, honestly, I have not seen any evidence of illegal activity so far. In fact, I have actually been quite surprised at how calm the situation is. I walk around without any problems whatsoever. The only time people come up and approach me is because they might think I’m an aid worker, and they think that, somehow, I can help find a hospital to take their daughter who has a broken leg, for instance.

No question, if this goes on, as bad as it has been the last two-and-a-half, nearly three full days now, you can expect that people would get impatient enough to start trying to break a window and get something to eat.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the aid effort itself? As you say, you have been there a few days now. Is there a sense that it is better-organized at this point? Is there any sort of coordination between the government or the local police or — and aid workers, or is it all sort of ad hoc still?

TINA SUSMAN: It’s still a bit ad hoc.

And that’s primarily because of the lack of communications and, also, once again, the — the inability for people simply to get to one another and find out what they need and what’s — what’s going on. Telephone lines are down for the most part. It’s not like you can just turn on your cell phone and find out what hospital needs what.

However, there are individual efforts seriously under way. For the first time today, for instance, I saw — I saw armed uniformed Haitian police standing guard at one of those incredibly long gasoline lines. That was the first time I had seen that since I got here Wednesday morning.

The individual aid organizations all said they are, you know, getting their teams in, and they are expecting to get their supplies in, hopefully by this afternoon and more tomorrow, so that they can actually start distributing the supplies. Their biggest concern at this point is how they are going to distribute the supplies, not only logistically, but how will they prevent from being — how will they prevent themselves from being mobbed when they do show up in a crowded area with things like water, which is almost impossible to find at this point?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tina Susman of The Los Angeles Times, thanks so much for talking to us, and take care.

TINA SUSMAN: Thank you very much.