Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Death, Desperation Mark Haiti's Dark Hours

The lone morgue in Port-au-Prince is filled to overflowing, while a mass grave outside the city holds thousands of bodies. Yet three days after a titanic earthquake, the death count has barely begun in Haiti's capital.

Hundreds of U.S. troops reached the city on Friday, but the nascent international aid effort had yet to show much impact and residents were becoming increasingly angry and impatient.

Amid reports of scattered looting, Haitians were in a desperate search for food and water, even as bodies still litter the streets.


Urgent needs are being met in piecemeal fashion. Makeshift medical clinics — most of them outdoors — are struggling to cope with the injured, often with few or no medical supplies.

"Haiti is dead, is dead, is dead, is dead, is dead. Everything is breaking down," Philippe Mercier told NPR's Greg Allen. "It's like somebody who lives in the street, you know? Eat on the street, drink water on the street. There's no pure water."

Hundreds of thousands of survivors in this desperately poor Caribbean nation are believed to be homeless. Many have fashioned makeshift shelters on the sides of city streets, in parks, and wherever else they can take refuge as aftershocks continue to rattle the city.

"There are just thousands of people out on the streets," said NPR's Jackie Northam from Port-au-Prince. "Every inch of the grass in this city is now taken up with people who are just huddled down because they have nowhere to go."

People trapped under rubble are being rescued in many cases by their neighbors, as Haitians pull together. Roberta Joachim, a worker at Haiti's National Library, was carried into the hospital by several men whom she had never met. Another former stranger made calls to her hometown in Gonaives, a place far from Port-au-Prince and largely unaffected by the earthquake, in an effort to let someone know that the young woman from the provinces was still alive.


In the ruins of the Montana Hotel, American Dan Wooley and Haitian Lucson Mondesir were trapped side by side in adjacent elevator cars. In the darkness, they talked and encouraged each other until a rescue team from Fairfax County, Va., arrived.

There is still no firm count of how many people perished in Tuesday's magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The international Red Cross has estimated that between 45,000 and 50,000 people were killed in the quake, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday there was no point in speculating about the scope of deaths or injuries until more information was available.

At least six Americans have been confirmed dead, including one U.S. diplomat, but the U.S. casualty count is expected to rise.

So many corpses have been brought to the morgue at the national hospital that hundreds have been stacked up outside in piles that snake around the corner of the building.

"There are dozens of people lined up to try and attempt the gruesome task of identifying their loved ones," NPR's Carrie Kahn reported from the scene. "It's a horrific sight to go in and experience that many dead people in all levels of decomposition."

U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian government officials have begun to collect some of the corpses and taken them to a mass grave on the outskirts of the city. Haiti's president has said that 7,000 bodies already have been buried there.

"It's not enough, so other sites must be created," David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission, told NPR's All Things Considered.

But the needs of the dead are simple compared with the care required by a staggering number of injured survivors. And many obstacles exist. Taking a lesson from the South Asian tsunami, governments and humanitarian agencies have been quick to rush sophisticated, pre-packaged field hospitals to the earthquake zone, but there's a real danger they could simply stack up at the overtaxed Port-au-Prince airport.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, urged well-meaning donors to send something other than mobile hospitals, at least for now.

"We need to avoid gaps and duplication and not waste the money of the donors," Byrs said.

Among Haiti's chief needs: surgeons who specialize in crush injuries, and nurses. Many of Haiti's medical personnel were killed or injured in Tuesday's quake.

The human help on the way is moving slowly.

Hundreds of U.S. troops already have arrived in Haiti, and several thousand are coming over the weekend after President Obama ordered an initial $100 million relief effort.

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier also arrived offshore, with 19 helicopters and the capacity to produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of desperately needed drinkable water.

"There are going to be many difficult days ahead," President Obama said on Friday, after speaking with Haitian President Rene Preval. "As I told the president, we realize that he needs more help and his country needs more help — much more."

Bowing to pressure from Congress, the Obama administration said Friday that tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally will be allowed to stay for the next year and a half. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said they're being granted temporary protected status, or TPS. That means that none will be deported to their devastated homeland for now. But any Haitians who attempt to flee to the U.S. will be sent back.

Back in Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers have seen "sporadic episodes of looting," according to Wimhurst. The Brazilian military, which makes up the largest contingent in the United Nations peacekeeping force, warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.

Indeed, some looters — young men and boys with machetes — roamed downtown streets on Friday.

"They are scavenging everything. What can you do?" said Michel Legros, 53, as he waited for help to search for seven relatives buried in his collapsed house.

There was still little evidence of aid being distributed downtown, and U.N. officials warned that Haitians are becoming increasingly fed up.

"Unfortunately, they're slowly getting more angry and impatient," Wimhurst said of the Haitians. "I fear we're all aware that the situation is getting more tense as the poorest people who need so much are waiting for deliveries. I think tempers might be frayed."

On the streets, Haitians expressed growing fears about their safety, particularly as there continues to be little sign of local police presence. Fueling these concerns, an estimated 4,000 prisoners were believed to have escaped from the collapsed main prison.

"We're worried that people will get a little uneasy," said gas station attendant Jean Reynol, 37, explaining his station was ready to close immediately if violence breaks out.

Haitians also complained that they see little evidence that their government is functioning, but U.N. officials insisted that the Haitian officials were working behind the scenes.

"The Haitian government is functioning on a daily basis, believe it or not, even though the prime minister's office has been demolished and the president's palace has gone down and the ministries have collapsed," Wimhurst told NPR's Melissa Block. "In spite of all that, they've regrouped very fast. They meet every day at 7 o'clock in the morning."

U.S. officials said that U.N. peacekeepers will have the main responsibility of maintaining security in the capital, but the U.S. military will take a lead role in coordinating relief efforts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he does not expect a hostile reception.

"Particularly given the role that we will have in delivering food and water and medical help to people, my guess is, the reaction will be one of relief at seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Gates told reporters on Friday.

The full extent of the damage is becoming clearer as relief workers fan out into more corners of the capital. Some 15 areas of the city have been hit particularly hard, with at least 70 percent of the buildings destroyed, according to assessments by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

One empty lot in the Bel Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, where a building stood only a few days earlier, has been turned into an impromptu bathhouse where people gathered around a hose, filling buckets.

Rescue teams were continuing to extract survivors from crumpled buildings, but a lack of heavy equipment means that many people remain trapped. Rescuers from the Dominican Republic stood outside the wrecked Interior Ministry building where at least two people were believed to be alive amid the rubble.

"We can't do anything because it's a difficult situation there," said Miguelina Tactou, one of the rescue workers. "Our people can be in danger."

Gerald Emil Brun survived a three-story fall after the collapse of the building that housed his architectural and engineering firm, Tecina. His colleagues were not so lucky.

"We are recovering about eight cadavers so far from our building — senior engineers and architects, a lot of them are gone," he said. "The way the construction industry goes in Haiti, we are probably responsible for 3,000 families. Now it's all down. It's all gone."

In what has long been the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, shock was giving way to despair.

"We need food. The people are suffering. My neighbors and friends are suffering," said Sylvain Angerlotte, 22. "We don't have money. We don't have nothing to eat. We need pure water."

Aid flights have been landing steadily at the Port-au-Prince airport. From Europe, Asia and the Americas, more than 20 governments, the U.N. and private aid groups were sending planeloads of high-energy biscuits and other food, tons of water, tents, blankets, water purification gear, heavy equipment for removing debris, helicopters and other transport.

In all, governments and international agencies have pledged more than $400 million in aid. The American Red Cross also reported a dramatic outpouring of support from the American public, saying that it received nearly $35 million in donations in the first 48 hours after the quake struck.

The massive international effort also yielded a rare diplomatic detente between the United States and Cuba, after Havana agreed to allow U.S. medical evacuation flights to fly through Cuban airspace to reach the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.

But the port in Haiti's capital is too badly damaged to be used for aid deliveries, which has severely restricted the pace of relief supplies. Some flights into Port-au-Prince had to be diverted — and the airport had been forced to halt flights several times on Thursday and Friday — as the tarmac filled up with airplanes and jet fuel ran short.

Aid workers are beginning to worry that they are running out of time.

"There is a huge amount of people in need, but my fear is now how we're going to get to them all," Hauke Hoops, the regional emergency coordinator in Haiti for CARE, an international aid group, wrote in a dispatch from Port-au-Prince. "This is one of the biggest disasters I've ever seen, and it is a huge logistical challenge."

The WFP began organizing distribution centers for food and water, but by Friday, it was only managing to feed about 8,000 families a day, according U.N. officials. The U.N.'s Ban acknowledged this was just a drop in the bucket. The WFP is planning to scale up its efforts in to feed 1 million people within 15 days, and 2 million within a month.

But aid workers have been blocked by debris on inadequate roads and by survivors gathered in the open out of fear of aftershocks and re-entering unstable buildings.

"The physical destruction is so great that physically getting from Point A to B with the supplies is not an easy task," Emilia Casella, a WFP spokeswoman in Rome, said at a news conference.

NPR's Greg Allen, Jason Beaubien, David Gilkey, Jackie Northam, Carrie Kahn and Michele Kelemen contributed to this report, which also includes information from NPR wire services

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit