Israelis race to save lives in Haiti

'Jerusalem Post' correspondent in Haiti reports on operational IDF field hospital, deployed canine units; death toll may reach 200,000.

Earthquake GEN 224.88 (photo credit: )
Earthquake GEN 224.88
(photo credit: )
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Israeli rescue and medical teams quickly joined the international effort on Saturday to locate and extricate survivors and provide aid to the millions of Haitians rendered helpless by last Tuesday's devastating earthquake.
Haitian officials are speculating that the death toll may be anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000, and vast numbers of bodies are being buried in mass graves to try to reduce the spread of disease.
A third of Haiti's 9 million people are believed to require aid, with 300,000 living on the streets here in the capital alone. The UN has described the disaster as the most challenging it has faced in terms of resources needed. A strongly felt aftershock, measured at 4.5 on the Richter scale, further complicated rescue efforts on Saturday, forcing a brief suspension of relief activities.
A ZAKA rescue unit, deployed at a collapsed multi-story university building, managed to extricate eight students from the rubble over the weekend - underlining the conviction among the Israeli rescue teams that it is not too late to save lives.
The Israeli delegation, which arrived on Friday, has established a headquarters near the airport, and swiftly set up its field hospital, unloading dozens of truckloads of medical and logistical equipment. The IDF's Medical and Rescue Team immediately began work, with two teams from the Oketz canine unit pressed into action, including at the UN headquarters in the capital where there was hope of locating and extricating survivors.
Meanwhile, the last Israeli missing in the quake, Sharona Elsaieh, daughter of peace activist Abie Nathan, contacted her family in Israel on Friday. Elsaieh, who has been living on the island for several years, told her family she was in good condition.
At Jimani Hospital, just across the border in the Dominican Republic, the extent of the tragedy is overpowering. Hundreds of Haiti's walking wounded are arriving in an endless stream, needing everything from amputations to abdominal surgery.
Inside Haiti, at the capital's General Hospital, patients lie on dirty mattresses on the floor while doctors do their best to apply splints - made from cardboard boxes - to broken limbs. Hopelessly overwhelmed medics do their best to tend to burned and bleeding gashes amid a stench of sweat and infection, with flies buzzing everywhere. Bodies are stacked outside the building in piles.
On the way into Port-au-Prince, cars and trucks have jammed the streets, hugely complicating efforts by international aid and rescue workers to distribute supplies and reach the scenes of devastation. Haitians, covering their faces to protect against swirling dust, are trying desperately to get out of the city, while ambulances, sirens blazing, battle to get through.
Concrete homes have collapsed everywhere in the hills of the capital, and people are squatting in empty plots of land and outside the destroyed National Palace, seeking shade in makeshift tents.
Some were begging for water, for food, and for transport through the rubble-strewn streets. One man was selling a bottle of juice for $7; others were begging for food.
Max Pierre Louis, who works for an organization that treats people with HIV/AIDS, said the 600 adults and 300 children he works with were rendered homeless by the earthquake. "We need help," he said simply.
Not far away, Dieudonne Jackson was searching for his brother's body in the rubble. "He was working on the second floor," he said, motioning to the collapsed building beside him. "I don't find him yet."
Crowds of Haitians are thronging around the foreign workers shoveling through piles of wreckage at shattered buildings throughout the city, using sniffer dogs, shovels and in some cases heavy earth-moving equipment.
Searchers poked a camera on a wire thorough a hole at the collapsed Hotel Montana and spotted three people who were still alive, and they heard the voice of a woman speaking French, said Ecuadorian Red Cross worker David Betancourt.
An El Al Boeing 777 and an IDF plane had landed on Friday with 250 Israeli medical officers and nurses for the 90-bed field hospital, which includes a full surgical unit and is able to treat 100 patients at a time.
Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish World Service and the Joint Distribution Committee, are also already working with partners on the ground here. The JDC is working with Heart to Heart to bring in and distribute medical aid, equipment and services. It also is working with the IDF Medical Corps, and has purchased equipment including infant incubators and orthopedic devices.
Chabad sent four trucks of vegetables into the country.
"We see people on the road asking for food," Rabbi Shimon Pelman, Chabad's emissary in Santo Domingo, said as he traveled by car from the Dominican Republican into Haiti just before Shabbat. Crossing the border, he said, was like entering another world. "You see a big nothing. You just see people asking for food and water."
In Washington, US President Barack Obama joined with his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on Saturday to appeal for donations to help Haiti and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, arrived in the Caribbean nation to coordinate with officials on the ground.
"We stand united with the people of Haiti, who have shown such incredible resilience, and we will help them to recover and to rebuild," Obama vowed.
"By coming together in this way, these two leaders send an unmistakable message to the people of Haiti and to the people of the world," Obama said in the Rose Garden, standing between Bush and Clinton.
The two former presidents have created a Web site,, to collect donations. They said potential donors should know that their money will be spent wisely.
Bush said the best way for people to help in Haiti is by sending money. "I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water. Just send your cash," said Bush, who made his first visit to the Oval Office since leaving the White House in January 2009.
Clinton, who also is the special UN envoy to Haiti, said he had stayed in Haitian hotels that collapsed during Tuesday's earthquake and dined with people who were killed in the disaster. "It is still one of the most remarkable, unique places I have ever been," he said.
Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said an estimated 300,000 people are living on the streets in Port-au-Prince, and "getting them water, and food, and a shelter is our top priority."
The US military operating Haiti's damaged main airport said it can now handle 90 flights a day, but that wasn't enough to cope with all the planes sent by foreign donors and governments circling overhead in hopes of winning one of the few spots available on the tarmac.
France's Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet said he had filed an official complaint to the US government after two French planes, one carrying a field hospital, were denied permission to land.
A plane carrying the prime ministers of two Caribbean nations also was forced to turn back late on Friday due to a lack of space at the airport, the Caricom trade bloc announced.
Haitian President Rene Preval urged donors to avoid arguments.
"This is an extremely difficult situation. We must keep our cool to do coordination and not to throw accusations at each other," Preval said after emerging from a meeting with donor groups and nations at a dilapidated police station that serves as his temporary headquarters.
With the National Palace and many ministries destroyed, Preval meets with ministers in the open air in a circle of plastic chairs.
On a street in the heavily damaged downtown area, the spade of a massive bulldozer quickly filled up with dead bodies headed for a morgue and immediate burial. Bellerive said that disposing of bodies had become crucial.
"Sadly, we have to bring everybody to mass graves because we are racing against a possible epidemic," he said. Haitians already have been piling bodies and burning them.
Many in the city have painted toothpaste around their nostrils and beg passers-by for surgical masks to cut the smell.
The US Southern Command said it now has 24 helicopters flying relief missions - many from warships off the coast - with 4,200 military personnel involved and 6,300 more due by Monday.
But with aid still scarce in many areas, there were scattered signs that the desperate - or the criminal - were taking things into their own hands.
A water delivery truck driver said he was attacked in one of the city's slums. There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street.
An Associated Press photographer saw one looter haul a corpse from a coffin at a city cemetery and then drive away with the box.
"I don't know how much longer we can hold out," said Dee Leahy, a lay missionary from St. Louis who was working with nuns handing out provisions from their small stockpile. "We need food, we need medical supplies, we need medicine, we need vitamins and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently."
UN spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the disaster is the most challenging the UN has faced in terms of resources needed. There was so much damage to local government and infrastructure that is harder for relief agencies to work than it was after the Asian tsunami of 2004, she said.
The Red Cross is estimating that 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday's magnitude-7.0 earthquake. The Pan American Health Organization estimated the toll at 50,000 to 100,000.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the World Food Program was providing high-energy biscuits and ready-to-eat meals to around 8,000 people "several times a day."
"Obviously, that is only a drop in the bucket in the face of the massive need, but the agency will be scaling up to feed approximately 1 million people within 15 days and 2 million people within a month," he said.
Troops from the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division began setting up an aid station on a golf course in an affluent part of the city, but they had no supplies to hand out yet and Capt. John Hartsock said it would be another two days before they could start distributing food and water.
"We've got to wait until we've got enough established so we can hand it out in a civilized fashion," Hartsock said.
Many, though, cannot wait.
A violent scuffle broke out among several hundred people jostling to be first in line as three US military helicopters were landing at the golf course with food and water.
The chopper pilots decided it was too dangerous to remain and took off with their precious cargo still inside.
"People are so desperate for food that they are going crazy," said Henry Ounche, an accountant who was among the crowd.
Other efforts to get aid to the victims has been slowed by blocked roads, congestion at the airport, limited equipment and fear of violence or disturbances. UN peacekeepers warned aid convoys to add security to guard against looting.
International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said a convoy with a field hospital and medical workers was heading into Haiti by road on Saturday from the Dominican Republic, because "it's not possible to fly anything into Port-au-Prince right now. The airport is completely congested."
The World Health Organization has said eight hospitals in Port-au-Prince were destroyed or damaged, severely curtailing treatment available for the injured.
Hundreds of Haitians fled east toward the Dominican Republic for care. More than 300 earthquake victims were crammed into a 30-bed hospital in the border town of Jimani, many sharing mattresses along crowded corridors, their arms drinking up IV fluids.
"The only thing left is to pray for God to save my son," said a weeping Jean-Paul Dieudone, who came to the border seeking help for his six-year-old boy after his wife and other son died in the earthquake.
Officials said damage to the seaport also is a problem for bringing in aid. The arrival on Friday of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson helped immediately by taking pressure off the airport. Within hours, an 82nd Airborne Division rapid response unit was handing out food, water and medical supplies from two cargo pallets outside the airport.
Others tried to help in smaller ways.
Milero Cedamou, the 33-year-old owner of a small water delivery company, twice drove his small tanker truck to a tent camp where thousands of homeless people are living. Hundreds clustered around to fill their plastic buckets.
"This is a crisis of unspeakable magnitude; it's normal for every Haitian to help," Cedamou said. "This is not charity."
Medical teams from a dozen other nations set up makeshift hospitals to tend to the critically injured, who were still appearing.
"We have the hope we can find more people," said Chilean Maj. Rodrigo Vasquez, whose teams were trying to save those trapped at the Hotel Montana. But others weren't as hopeful. One Haitian woman sitting outside of the destroyed hotel spoke on her cellphone and sobbed. "No one's alive in there," she said in Creole.
And soon, it will be too late in any case.
"Beyond three or four days without water, they'll be pretty ill," said Dr. Michael VanRooyen of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative in Boston. "Around three days would be where you would see people start to succumb."
Still, there were improbable triumphs.
"It's a miracle," said Anne-Marie Morel, raising her arms to the sky after a neighbor was found alive in the rubble of a home. If one person could be resuscitated from the utter destruction of this street, there remained hope that many other could still be found alive, she said.
"Nonsense, there is no God and no miracle," shouted back Remi Polevard, another neighbor, who said his five children were somewhere under the nearby debris.
"How could he do this to us?" Polevard yelled.
US evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said Haiti has been "cursed" because of a "pact with the devil" in its history. His spokesman said the comments were based on Voodoo rituals carried out before a slave rebellion against French colonists in 1791.
But the spokesman said Robertson never stated that Tuesday's earthquake was God's wrath. He added that Robertson's Operation Blessing group was sending millions of dollars in medication and relief workers to the country.
Robertson has angered opponents many times before with comments on current events and criticism of other faiths.
He once said American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and said prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Judy Siegel and AP contributed to this report.