First Lady Michelle Obama visits Haiti, Mexico

First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Mexico City on Tuesday night after making a surprise detour to Haiti during her much-touted first official solo trip abroad.

Obama stopped off at the impoverished Caribbean island nation to view the devastation left by a catastrophic earthquake Jan. 12. She was accompanied in Haiti by Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, before flying on her own to Mexico’s capital for scheduled events Wednesday and Thursday.

The trip to Haiti was not made public until the two women landed there because of concerns about security and crowd control, a White House official said.

Mexico was to have been the first country Obama visited on an official trip abroad without the president. Instead, that distinction fell to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, which was afflicted by an 80% poverty rate even before the disaster.

The White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama and Biden had wanted to visit Haiti for some time, but wanted to avoid interfering with ongoing humanitarian efforts, among other concerns.

“I think it was important for Jill and I to come now because we’re at the point where the relief efforts are underway but the attention of the world starts to wane a bit,” Obama said after a helicopter tour of areas damaged by the quake. “And as we enter the rainy season and the hurricane season, you know, the issues are just going to become more compounded. And I think it was important for us to come and shed a light.”

Obama and Biden flew aboard a U.S. Army helicopter for an aerial view of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. More than a million quake survivors are homeless, many struggling in squalid conditions under tents and tarps. More than 200,000 people are believed to have died in Haiti’s magnitude 7.0 quake.

“What is clear is that there is still so much to do,” Obama said. “It’s powerful. The devastation is definitely powerful.”

She and Biden met with Haitian President Rene Preval and his wife, Elisabeth Delatour Preval, in addition to visiting a school.

Obama passed on a message of support from her husband, who, immediately after the quake struck, sent thousands of U.S. soldiers and aid workers to spearhead a huge international relief effort.

“Little by little, Haiti will move forward; little by little, Haiti will rebuild,” she said. “We have hope because the United States stands with Haiti, and we have hope because the world stands with Haiti.”

The daylong visit included a stop at one of two sites where Haiti’s first lady has a “bus camp” for 900 children. The children are provided with art therapy, with the help of Haitian artists in green buses.

Dozens of children greeted Obama and Biden, singing “welcome” in English. Obama danced as the children sang. At the end, she gave several of them high-fives.

As one group ended, another group of children sang in Creole, “We are glad to see you. We say, let’s be happy.”

Later, Obama and Biden joined the children in an art lesson, and Obama drew a purple fish at the request of one of the children. Biden drew a house.

On arrival at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport on Tuesday night, Obama was greeted by diplomatic officials and about 50 girls from the Mexican equivalent of the Girl Scouts, along with 37 boys and girls who volunteer for the Mexican Red Cross.

She will be accompanied during her visit by Mexico’s first lady, Margarita Zavala.

Times wire services contributed to this report.