Haitian President Says Focus is Rescue; Tens of Thousands Feared Dead

The president of the island nation of Haiti, René Preval, has told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta in an interview conducted on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince that the situation on the ground is “incredible”, adding that “you have to see it to believe it”. The destruction is widespread and the human suffering inestimable. Small health clinics are overwhelmed by massive numbers of casualties, as public health infrastructure has collapsed.

Pres. Preval said “we don’t have the capacity” to get medical treatment to all of the injured, at present, and specified that priority number one is to clear the roads so emergency relief services —which are being rushed to the island from abroad— can be mobilized effectively during the critical first 48 hours after the quake. The International Committee of the Red Cross says disaster relief efforts in Haiti are “completely overwhelmed”. Preval said his country needs medicine and medical assistance without delay.

CNN is reporting that independent analysis of the potential for mass casualties in Haiti, due to construction conditions, sparse infrastructural integration and chronic poverty, shows a high probability of up to 10,000 killed, with a “reasonable” probability of anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 killed. There is at present no official count of how many people have been killed in the quake and its aftermath. Haitian officials have publicly said they are concerned there could be hundreds of thousands killed.

USAID reports rescue and relief teams have already landed in Haiti and “moved out from the airport” into the field to help speed desperately needed emergency assistance to those affected by the quake. A spokesperson for USAID praised the Coast Guard’s response, and said the commanding general at US Southern Command has been in close contact with USAID, helping to coordinate the deployment of rescue and relief teams.

US Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to cut short a major 10-day diplomatic trip to the Asian-Pacific region to return to Washington to help coordinate the complex and far-reaching relief effort for Haiti. USAID is in charge of coordinating the official US humanitarian relief effort, and the State Department is also coordinating evacuation efforts for Americans in Haiti who may seek to return to the US.

Haiti’s consul-general has said 100,000 are estimated to have died. The prime minister has said the figure could be in the hundreds of thousands. Haiti’s first lady has been quoted as saying “most of” the capital is destroyed. And aid agencies are concerned that focus on the capital may result in under-serving cities outside the capital that experienced even more violent shaking and destruction than in Port-au-Prince and might be missed by the largest relief efforts.

Pres. Preval also told CNN today that he had gone to the airport to work, because both his home and the Presidential Palace are too damaged and unsafe to return to. He said he was told he could not set up a command center at the airport either, apparently due to the potential danger of collapse or uncertain security conditions.

Haitian-Americans are flooding Radio Soleil, a Brooklyn-based Haitian radio station, with calls intended to get word out they are looking for missing relatives and loved ones. The Haitian-American community in New York is one of the most significant centers of Haitian culture outside Haiti, and is likely to be a major source of aid, and possibly of volunteers seeking to join relief efforts.

Anecdotal reports from Haiti, such as one delivered to CNN via Skype, say there has been little to no violence so far, in the wake of the earthquake. Eyewitness testimony so far suggests people are busy trying to get medical assistance for the wounded, grouping together to help neighbors and search for the missing. There are reports, however, that some security forces shot prisoners who sought to escape a damaged prison that may have been at risk of collapse.

Former US president Bill Clinton, the UN’s special diplomatic envoy to Haiti, whose foundation is helping to organize the relief effort, said today of the people of Haiti, “These are good people”, and urged Americans to come together in support of relief efforts and aid intended to help restore Haiti’s basic services and political security in the wake of the disaster.

The World Bank has pledged $100 million for reconstruction and disaster relief in Haiti, after an initial assessment of the damage and of the need. According to ReliefWeb:

The World Bank on Wednesday pledged an extra $100 million in aid for Haiti’s reconstruction and said it was considering setting up a special trust fund to mobilize international aid for the country. …

“At this point we are very much in a search and recovery mode and we will have to let that run its course, and then in discussions with the government find out when is the most appropriate time,” [World Bank Country Director for the Caribbean, Yvonne Tsikata] told a conference call. “We’d like to go as quickly as possible.”

ReliefWeb also notes: “The $100 million is in addition to the $363 million the World Bank has provided Haiti since 2005. Tsikata said the bank could also adapt existing development projects in Haiti to focus on recovery efforts.” The reconstruction effort will be in some ways a nationwide undertaking, as so many of Haiti’s severely overstretched national government institutions have been grievously undermined by the quake.

Links to Haiti earthquake relief campaigns: