A nation in ruins

Thursday, January 14, 2010 – Globe and Mail
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and The Associated Press

As the world scrambled to respond to the massive earthquake in Haiti, the scene in its densely populated capital was one of chaos and devastation that completely overwhelmed the country’s threadbare emergency resources. Gunshots rang out as night fell and widespread looting was reported.

It remained impossible yesterday to ascertain the number of people killed by the 7.0-magnitude quake, but Haitian President René Préval said casualties could extend beyond 100,000, including three Canadians.

Father Maurice Piquard of the Montfortaint congregation in Port-au-Prince spent Tuesday night outside and woke to a scene of destruction.

“No neighbourhood is spared … the entire city is destroyed,” he said, adding that many of his students were crushed beneath buildings and he’s still trying to find missing colleagues.

“We can’t do anything, we are completely destitute in the face of the magnitude of the catastrophe. A mob of people is … waiting for rescue that won’t come until tomorrow, or maybe the day after … or later.

“The deaths are innumerable, the wounded wait for help that does not come.”

The first shipments of international aid, supplies and emergency crews are beginning to hit the ground in the quake-pummelled region surrounding Port-au-Prince.

It’s now a race against time to rescue and treat as many survivors as possible in the wake of the region’s worst earthquake in centuries, in a place that lacks first-responders of its own. Survivors were digging through twisted wreckage with bare and bloodied hands well past dark.

Among the missing are two members of Canada’s 82-person contingent in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a former Liberal MP and an IT consultant from Montreal.

The two Mounties are Superintendent Douglas Coates of Ottawa, co-ordinator for the UN mission in Haiti, and RCMP Sergeant Mark Gallagher from Halifax. The missing former politician, Serge Marcil, now works for a Montreal engineering firm. He was supposed to have checked in Tuesday afternoon at the Hotel Montana, a well-known tourist destination that was destroyed, leaving hundreds missing.

Also staying at the Montana was Alexandre Bitton, who worked for the Montreal IT firm ADNM International and remained unaccounted for yesterday.

A woman in North Carolina says her Canadian parents, Georges Anglade, a Montreal university professor for 30 years, and his wife, Mireille, have been confirmed dead in the Haitian earthquake.

The prominent UN mission in Haiti – effectively the country’s only operational security force – was neutralized with the destruction of its headquarters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon confirmed 14 UN personnel are dead, and at least 100 unaccounted for. Reports differed as to whether Hedi Annabi, head of the mission, was dead or alive.

Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, a native of Haiti, broke down in tears at a briefing with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials.

Chaos reigned more than 30 hours after the first tremors convulsed the island nation Tuesday, and powerful aftershocks continued well into yesterday evening.

Many areas were without power, the country’s phone system remained down and obtaining drinking water was difficult. Many hospitals collapsed and virtually every building taller than one storey was reduced to rubble.

Commitments of aid have poured in from across the world as countries commit to sending money and rescue teams to help with the first response.

Canada has committed $5-million in aid, as well as its Disaster Assistance Response Team. Quebec has pledged its own emergency crews.

The United States is sending ships, helicopters, transport planes and a 2,000-member Marine unit; Israel, Germany, Spain and numerous other countries have pledged their own rescue teams. A 37-person search-and-rescue team from Iceland landed in Port-au-Prince. The UN has committed $10-million from its emergency coffers.

But as international organizations struggled to begin work in the quake-effected area it became clear that any emergency rescue efforts will be maddeningly slow, hampered by destroyed infrastructure that’s grossly inadequate at the best of times. Streets and roads, when not blocked by rubble, are crowded by those left homeless by the quake.

What would be a large-scale disaster at the best of times is made far worse because Haiti lacks any emergency responders of its own, says Daniel Kaniewski, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“The citizens are the first responders. … The unfortunate reality is that the citizens of Haiti are largely going to be on their own for the next several days.”

What’s needed is heavy equipment such as bulldozers and cranes, as well as mobile hospitals to treat the wounded. But by the time those arrive and are operational, it may be too late for many of those now crushed under rubble. The vast majority of earthquake survivors are found within the first 48 hours after an initial tremor. After that, rescue missions become body-recovery operations.

“It’s a very chaotic situation,” Paul McPhun, operations manager in Haiti for the Canadian section of Médecins Sans Frontières, said in a conference call.

With one of its three clinics collapsed and the other two structurally damaged, MSF staff were working from tents.

The death toll may be particularly high for children, who would have been in school in the late afternoon when the earthquake hit, said Sophie Perez, country director for CARE Haiti.

“There are many children trapped. It’s horrifying,” she said when reached by phone. “The slums on the hills have also completely collapsed. We’ve heard of landslides, with entire communities being wiped out. My children are terrified. Everyone is terrified.”

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