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U.N.: Humanitarian Response Will be Swift

January 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jim Lehrer speaks with United Nations Undersecretary-General John Holmes, who is in charge of humanitarian affairs, about the U.N. plan to help Haiti recover from the earthquake.
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JIM LEHRER: Joining us now from the United Nations is Under-Secretary General John Holmes. He’s in charge of humanitarian affairs.

Mr. Holmes, welcome.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you. Good evening.

JIM LEHRER: Good evening to you.

How would you — based on your information coming to the United Nations, how would you describe the situation there tonight?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think the situation, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, is dramatic and tragic.

Clearly, the devastation caused by the earthquake is extremely widespread. We believe and fear that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of victims still under rubble in houses and buildings of various kinds. And, of course, there are some U.N. members of staff among them.

So, the top priority of all at the moment is to get the search-and-rescue teams, their expertise, the proper equipment in there to try and save those people before it’s too late. And, as you know, in these situations, every hour counts.

I think there are teams arriving from China, from the United States, with more on the way from France and Dominican Republic and elsewhere. But we need to get those teams in there quickly to save lives.

The next priority, I think, for us is going to be medical help. The medical infrastructure, such as it is, in Port-au-Prince has been clearly overwhelmed by the number of victims. And, of course, hospitals have been destroyed or badly damaged by the earthquake itself. So, those are two of the priorities we’re facing, but it is a very dramatic and a huge tragedy for the people of Haiti and exactly what they don’t need after all they have been through.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Holmes, there have been estimates, as you know, of from 30,000 to 500,000 in terms of the death toll. Can you shed any light on that?

JOHN HOLMES: I’m very wary of giving any numbers, to be honest with you.

Clearly, there must be hundreds, probably thousands of victims, thousands of dead, but we simply don’t know. So, I really don’t want to give you a figure. Let’s wait to see when we get a bit more information.

But, whatever the exact figure is, it’s clearly a major tragedy. There will be a major humanitarian relief effort to be mounted, as well as the search-and-rescue efforts I have talked about, so we have a lot on our plate for the next few days.

JIM LEHRER: What about the situation literally in the streets of Port-au-Prince? Can you — because the United Nations obviously has some peacekeepers there. Some of them obviously were injured and killed. But give us that perspective.

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think there’s a lot of people on the street, because they have nowhere else to go. They spent last night on the street, partly because there was nowhere else to go and partly because of fear of aftershocks, which are still continuing. And I guess the same may be the case this evening.

So, people are beginning to need the kind of emergency aid we will want to provide them in terms of shelter, food, clean water, sanitation, the basics of life. For the moment, it seems reasonably calm. The U.N. peacekeepers are helping to try and maintain law and order on the streets, to make sure that they the major installations of the port and the airport and other public buildings are secure, that the roads are open, and that — and they’re also helping to give as much aid to people as they possibly, even despite the problems we have of our own.

JIM LEHRER: Is the Haitian government functioning?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think the Haitian government is beginning to start to recover from what’s been a tremendous shock. This is not a government with a huge capacity to start with. This is a very poor and underdeveloped country.

I think they have been knocked sideways by the — the extent of this tragedy. Of course, the individual members of the services, the fire brigade and so on, are also very concerned about their own families and their own situations. So, I think there’s a long way to go to reestablish services. But I detect the first signs, at least, of the government starting to function again.

JIM LEHRER: And speaking of the tragedy — of the tragedies, what — describe the tragedy that hit your folks, that hit the U.N. people in Port-au-Prince, and give us some feel for what happened and what the result has been.

JOHN HOLMES: Well, the biggest problem is that the main headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, a building called the Hotel Christopher, collapsed more or less completely, as I understand it. It was a five-story concrete building, apparently robust, but it collapsed almost completely. Many people were trapped inside.

And, normally, about 200 to 250 people work there. We believe at least 100 may still be trapped under the rubble. We’re desperately trying to get them out. We don’t know whether they’re dead or alive. Of course, it’s, again, a desperate struggle against time, helped by the Brazilian peacekeepers in this particular case, but without enough of the right equipment to do the job as we would like to do it.

It’s very — it’s particularly tragic for us because the special representative of the secretary-general and his deputy are both trapped under the rubble. We don’t know what their condition is either. And, so, it’s a huge loss for the United Nations.

And there are other people in other buildings who have also suffered, peacekeepers in other places who have died or been injured. So, that’s the biggest problem we face at the moment.

JIM LEHRER: There’s — there’s been a report from the president of Haiti that Ambassador Hedi Annabi, who is chief of the U.N. mission in Haiti, has been one of the victims. Is that correct?

JOHN HOLMES: I can’t confirm that.

As far as I know, we’re still looking for him under the rubble with many others, so I can’t confirm that report, and I certainly hope it’s not true.

JIM LEHRER: Can you confirm any of the deaths among the U.N. mission people?

JOHN HOLMES: We have certainly had some deaths. I think at least five people have been pulled out dead from the rubble. There may well be others. We have saved some people, badly injured, but I can’t give you any more specific figures.

There are figures which I think the secretary-general has been announcing just now about deaths among the peacekeepers. But this is still a very fluid, moving target, so it’s very hard to give you definitive answers to the questions like that, I’m afraid.

JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. Holmes, thank you very much for — for this update.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.