International efforts to scramble aid relief to Haiti have been stymied by transportation bottlenecks and the near-total collapse of local government in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation's capital on Tuesday night.
The death toll was estimated on Thursday at between 40,000 and 50,000 by the international Red Cross, though the real number remains unknown.
Israel was rushing rescue forces to the poverty-stricken nation. Two El Al planes took off from Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday night carrying a 121-member delegation that includes 40 doctors, five search-and-rescue teams, and a K9 rescue squad from the army's Oketz unit. The IDF medical teams are preparing to spend two weeks in Haiti and to see an average of 500 patients a day, Chief IDF Medical Corps Officer Brig.-Gen. Nahman Ash said on Thursday.
OC Home Front Command Brig.-Gen. Shalom Ben-Aryeh, head of the delegation, said there was hope that the search-and-rescue teams would still succeed in rescuing people trapped beneath the rubble. He said that the pictures from Haiti were reminiscent of the last rescue mission Israel launched to India in 2002.
Amos Radian, Israel's ambassador to the neighboring Dominican Republic, arrived in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday and began sending reports back to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post following a five-hour hike across the decimated capital, he related horrors "the likes of which I have never seen in my life."
"There is a strange quiet in the streets," he said. "Thousands of people are sitting in the middle of the street afraid to enter the buildings. The city is destroyed. You see corpses lying alongside every street corner. People are wandering aimlessly. It's a very difficult sight, and nobody is there to help. I passed a poor residential area, and you could see that the entire mountainside turned into an avalanche and every last home was destroyed," he related.
Passing the collapsed remains of the Montana Hotel, Radian spoke to an American rescue worker who said there was a US diplomat trapped under the rubble who had survived the quake and was sending SMS messages to his family in the United States.
While the rubble stretched for as far as he could see, "I didn't notice a single ambulance or rescue crew in many hours of walking. Going by what I saw in the city, people will be trapped under those ruins for many days."
There are sites, the ambassador said, "that the rescue forces will probably never reach."
The situation was worsened by the complete collapse of the country's communications system.
"Millions of people have been left with no communications. I myself have been working with a satellite phone I borrowed from a friend in the Dominican Republic that I brought with me," he said.
Worse, the earthquake seems to have also led to the near-total collapse of government.
"There is no water, no food, no fuel, and no central government to bring order. The entire law enforcement system has collapsed. Hospitals are in ruins. There is complete anarchy. We don't know who's running the country. Local government is nonexistent."
The United States has stepped into this vacuum, Radian explained, establishing a field control tower at Port-au-Prince airport in place of the one destroyed in the quake, and shipping in thousands of troops and millions of dollars to begin the painful process of restoring order and rescuing those buried under the rubble.
As many as 5,500 American infantry soldiers and Marines will be on the ground or on ships offshore by Monday, a US Defense Department official said. More than a half dozen ships were heading there on Thursday or preparing to get under way, said spokesman Bryan Whitman. They included the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, to arrive on Friday, and a hospital ship with 12 operating rooms, the USNS Comfort, expected by January 22.
The first US Army troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were expected to arrive late on Thursday. About 100 troops will find locations to set up tents and make other preparations for the arrival of roughly 800 personnel from the division on Friday and a full brigade of some 3,500 by the end of the weekend, Whitman said.
They come on top of some 2,200 Marines, also to arrive by Sunday or Monday.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called it a major effort to provide security, search and rescue, and delivery of humanitarian supplies.
Administration officials said deployment was slowed by badly damaged roads, airport, port and communications. President Barack Obama, who promised that "more help is on the way," also warned it would take hours "and in many cases days" to get the full US contingent on the ground. "You will not be forsaken," Obama pledged. "In this, the hour of your greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you."
"The United States is providing a lot of the glue that is keeping people communicating and working together as we try to assert authority, reinstate the government and begin to do what governments have to do to rebuild and reconstruct this damaged country," Clinton said in an interview on Fox News.
And P.J. Crowley, her spokesman, stressed that while US troops sent to Haiti will be under US command, they are there primarily to support the United Nations' 9,000-member peacekeeping mission and to do what it is asked by the Haitians.
"We're not taking over Haiti," he said. "We are helping to stabilize Haiti, we're helping to provide them lifesaving support and materiel and we're going to be there over the long-term to help Haiti rebuild."
"We assume that in the first stage we will deal with trauma patients," said the IDF's Brig.-Gen. Ash, "and then the next round will be people suffering from infections and secondary illnesses."
The field hospital, he added, would have surgery rooms, and several beds in an Intensive Care Unit.
The planes will land on Friday and the field hospital will likely begin operations on Saturday. A security detail of combat troops is also being sent to provide security for the Israeli delegation.
Members of the delegation received vaccinations on Thursday to prepare them for the country's poor medical infrastructure, Ash said.
"We have experience that after several days it is still possible to rescue people," said Ben-Aryeh, adding that one of the first missions once the teams arrived would be to search for an Israeli woman who is still missing.
A police forensics unit is also set to depart for Haiti on Friday morning to assist in the identification of casualties.
The team will be led by Ch.-Insp. Dr. Zipi Kahana, a forensics expert, as well as fingerprints expert FSM Ze'ev Segel, and other experts.
The team will be equipped with tools to allow for a comparison of teeth and fingerprint samples taken from bodies.
According to the Israeli branch of UNICEF, some 46 percent of Haiti's population of 10 million are younger than 18.
"The special needs of children for food, shelter and protection have to be the top concern of the aid efforts," the organization said in a statement on Thursday.
UNICEF Israel, together with other Israeli and Diaspora Jewish groups, is calling for urgent funds to help rescue efforts.
"We understand that the most urgent need right now is to restore infrastructure related to health," said Shachar Zahavi of IsraAID, an Israeli coalition of humanitarian and rescue groups that is sending a 15-member team of doctors, nurses, paramedics and logistics experts to help the international aid efforts.
"During the earthquake, the water infrastructure broke and spilled into the sewage system. The crisis here is not just about the wounded, but about the coming diseases," he said.
The IsraAID team will report back on the specific needs of the country.
"We don't have huge budgets, so we're not going to be financing hundreds of tons of food, or send fleets of ships to the country. We need to focus on things where Israel can offer its special expertise. In the fields of emergency medicine, search-and-rescue, post-trauma counseling and water purification are uniquely advanced in Israel. We're also talking to some hi-tech companies with expertise in restoring collapsed communications networks."
IsraAID's work is being funded by a coalition of North American Jewish groups, including the Jewish Federation of Toronto, the American Jewish Committee and B'nai B'rith International.
Other groups, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish World Service, are sending money and assistance through the International Red Cross and other aid agencies.
Meanwhile, Radian is charged with coordinating the Israeli efforts in Port-au-Prince. The international aid effort, though unprecedented in proportions, has been a "drop in the ocean," he said.
Meeting Haiti's president, Rene Preval, he reported that "this was a deeply shaken man. He got out of the collapsing National Palace by the skin of his teeth. He didn't seem the same strong, humorous man I'd known in the past."
"Everyone I'm speaking to is saying that Haiti was already a place mistreated by fate that was barely holding its head above water. It will take more than days or even months to recover from this disaster."
Yaakov Katz, Yaakov Lappin and AP contributed to this report.