LES CAYES – Relief for the victims of a powerful earthquake and tropical storm began flowing more quickly into Haiti on Thursday, but the Caribbean nation’s entrenched poverty, insecurity and lack of basic infrastructure were still presenting huge challenges to getting food and urgent medical care to all those who need it.
Private relief supplies and shipments from the U.S. government and others were arriving in the southwestern peninsula where the weekend quake struck, killing more than 2,100 people. But the need was extreme, made worse by the rain from Tropical Storm Grace, and people were growing frustrated with the slow pace.
Adding to the problems, a major hospital in the capital of Port-au-Prince, where many of the injured were being sent, was closed Thursday for a two-day shutdown to protest the kidnapping of two doctors, including one of the country's few orthopedic surgeons.
The abductions dealt a blow to attempts to control criminal violence that has threatened disaster response efforts in the capital.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency late Wednesday raised the number of deaths from the earthquake to 2,189 and said 12,268 people were injured. More than 300 people are estimated to still be missing, said Serge Chery, head of civil defense for the Southern Province, which includes the hard-hit small port city of Les Cayes.
The magnitude 7.2 earthquake damaged or destroyed more than 100,000 homes, leaving about 30,000 families homeless, according to official estimates. Hospitals, schools, offices and churches also were demolished or badly damaged.
The U.S. aid effort has been building since the initial hours after the earthquake. On Thursday, 10 U.S. military helicopters ferried in search and rescue teams, medical workers and supplies that had been pre-positioned in Haiti by the U.S. Agency for International Development after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
A Navy ship, the USS Arlington, was expected to arrive this weekend, said Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees the military response as commander of Miami-based U.S. Southern Command.
“We’ve got the momentum now,” Faller said. “We’ve got the assets in place. We’ve figured out logistics.”
The U.S. government is still working with Haitian authorities and others to determine the extent of the damage and casualties. Faller said a U.S. Geological Survey assessment projected there could be more than 10,000 deaths.
One of the U.S. helicopters landed Thursday in Les Cayes with equipment, medicine and volunteers, including some from the aid group Samaritan’s Purse. Monte Oitker, a biomedical technician with the organization, said volunteers were prepared to operate a self-contained hospital unit, capable of handling a variety of orthopedic procedures.
Distributing aid to the thousands left homeless could be more challenging.
Chery said officials are hoping to start clearing sites where homes were destroyed to allow residents to build temporary shelters.
“It will be easier to distribute aid if people are living at their addresses, rather than in a tent," he said.
While some officials have suggested an end to the search for survivors so that heavy machinery can clear all of the rubble, Prime Minister Ariel Henry appeared unwilling to move to that stage.
“Some of our citizens are still under the debris. We have teams of foreigners and Haitians working on it,” he said.
He also appealed for unity.
“We have to put our heads together to rebuild Haiti,” Henry said. “The country is physically and mentally destroyed.”
Tension over the slow distribution of aid has become increasingly evident in the area hit hardest by Saturday’s quake. At the small airport in Les Cayes, people thronged a perimeter fence Wednesday as aid was loaded into trucks and police fired warning shots to disperse a crowd of young men.
Angry crowds also massed at collapsed buildings in the city, demanding tarps to create temporary shelters after Grace’s heavy rain. Also in Les Cayes, 22 prisoners escaped from the jail after the quake hit, said National Police spokeswoman Marie-Michelle Verrier.
International aid workers said hospitals in the worst-hit areas are mostly incapacitated, which is why many patients need to be moved to the capital for treatment. But reaching Port-au-Prince from the southwest is difficult under normal conditions because of poor roads and gangs along the route.
Even with a supposed gang truce following the earthquake, kidnapping remains a threat — underscored by the seizure of the two doctors working at the private Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince, where about 50 quake victims were being treated.
And another problem emerged in the quake-damaged southern provinces, where national police said villagers put up barricades on the roads to prevent aid from getting through, arguing that they need help too.
“For those people who are blocking roads at their leisure to stop it (aid) from getting through to the people, you need to wait until the aid comes to you," Verrier said. She said special police units would escort aid shipments.
So far, the U.S. military has found the roads it needs to be open and has encountered no security issues from gangs, Faller said in an interview with The Associated Press. The Arlington will come equipped not just with a surgical team to treat victims but a Marine Corps rapid reaction security force that will stay on the ship unless needed.
“They are an insurance policy, frankly,” Faller said. “Marines are trained for that and they’re trained for the appropriate use of force. And there’s a deterrent value to having them in the area, as well. And we intend to be ready.”
Jerry Chandler, the head of the national civil defense agency, said the Haiti National Police presence has also been "an important step to help us move the aid.”
Chandler said his agency also has boats and helicopters “to bring aid and bring it quickly” to certain areas.
A group of 18 Colombian volunteer search-and-rescue workers had to be escorted out of the quake-hit city of Jeremie under police protection after a rumor circulated that they had been involved in the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The workers took shelter Wednesday night at a civil defense office, and police escorted them to the airport on Thursday.
Moise's killing, still unsolved, is suspected of being carried out by a group of Colombian mercenaries. Despite what happened to the Colombian rescue workers, Haiti is welcoming “everyone who is coming to bring assistance,” Chandler said.
Henry said Wednesday that his administration will try not to “repeat history on the mismanagement and coordination of aid,” a reference to the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, when the government and international partners struggled to channel help to the needy amid the widespread destruction and misery.
The Core Group, a coalition of key international diplomats from the U.S. and other nations that monitors Haiti, said in a statement Wednesday that its members are “resolutely committed to working alongside national and local authorities to ensure that impacted people and areas receive adequate assistance as soon as possible.”
Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Washington contributed to this report.