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Desperate to help and be helped

Emergency aid flowed from around the world toward Haiti on Thursday, only to confront a reality that grew more desperate by the hour: Crippled ports and communications left stunned earthquake survivors on their own to scavenge for food and water, carry away legions of dead and dig frantically for voices calling out from under the rubble.

President Obama promised $100 million and the full resources of the U.S. government for what he said would be one of the largest relief efforts in recent history. U.S. officials said 30 countries had either sent aid or promised to do so. Rescue teams from eight countries already had arrived.

But two days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, there was little evidence of the aid effort in the capital of the hemisphere’s poorest country.

“In Haiti, you’re lucky if they come with a screwdriver,” said Jean Marc Mercier, a Haitian American who spent the last two days hunting for survivors in the wreckage of the Hotel Montana, a longtime gathering spot for diplomats, journalists, humanitarian workers and businessmen.

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The toppled six-story hotel was an exception to the scenes of abandonment elsewhere; a rescue team newly arrived from Virginia was combing the debris.

Mercier, who runs a computer business in Haiti, said he and others had been burrowing by hand toward voices calling out from deep inside the wreckage. They had managed to save one woman, an aid worker.

“Last night after I went to bed, all I heard were the voices in my head. One guy told me not to bother: ‘Go help people who are in better shape. There is no way you are getting to me,’ ” said Mercier, 44. “I wasn’t able to sleep all night.”

Asked how many people were in the hotel when it collapsed, he whispered, “Hundreds.”

Aid officials said the risk of violence and looting would increase as scant food and water run out and frustrated families fail to find medical care for the injured.

Officials who were willing to estimate the number of dead acknowledged that they were just guessing. Victor Jackson, an official with Haiti’s Red Cross, told Reuters news agency that his organization was estimating 45,000 to 50,000 had died.

All across Port-au-Prince, it seemed, the living bore the dead -- in the beds of pickups, in wheelbarrows, on makeshift stretchers. At a hospital named St. Marie, crowded a day earlier with dozens of people seeking help, the courtyard was empty except for two cleaners mopping bloody water into the street.

Even many who didn’t lose their homes were afraid to sleep in them.

Lionel Aceveje, a police officer who lives in a hillside shantytown near the suburb of Petionville, said his family of six was sleeping outside in the evening chill. “Every little shaking terrifies us,” he said.

Both the air- and seaports were proving to be bottlenecks for the international aid effort.

Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard medical professor and U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti, said supply lines to Haiti are often fragile, even without a devastating natural disaster.

The quake-damaged seaport is “basically shut down,” said Farmer, who has 27 years’ experience working in Haiti. Air traffic was backed up, he said, with planes jockeying to land at a minimally functioning airport.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s charity, was amassing supplies in Panama for an airlift. The agency sent one plane with medical kits, blankets and tents to Port-au-Prince on Thursday, but the plane could not land and had to return to Panama.

“It’s really a logistics nightmare,” Farmer said. “We need to fix the port and open up other land bridges and air spaces where planes and helicopters can land.”

The U.N. response has been further hampered by its own losses. Although there’s no official body count, U.N. officials said at least 30 of their colleagues in Haiti are known to be dead and 100 to 150 remain missing.

Among the rescue teams in place was a 72-member contingent from Southern California. A Los Angeles County search-and-rescue team that includes firefighters, doctors, six rescue dogs and their handlers arrived Thursday morning. The team is equipped with medical supplies as well as cameras, listening devices and cutting tools.

In Washington, Obama enlisted both of his immediate predecessors, Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, to lead the U.S. aid initiative, following an example set by Bush after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It was his first presidential request of Bush, whom he criticized for his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“You will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten,” Obama said, addressing the people of Haiti. “In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”

U.S. officials were able to evacuate 300 to 400 U.S. citizens by air, most of them to the neighboring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

A U.S. diplomat was among the dead. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Victoria DeLong, 57, a cultural affairs officer, had been stationed in Haiti since last year. He said she was from California, but her hometown was not immediately available.

One immediate focus of the U.S. effort was restoring communications, which were so bad that Obama was unable to reach Haitian President Rene Preval on Thursday afternoon.

The U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, equipped with three operating rooms, 19 helicopters and a water-purification system, was en route to Haiti and was expected to arrive today to help shuttle relief supplies and serve as a floating hospital.

The Navy also dispatched an amphibious assault ship, the Bataan, with 2,000 members of a Marine expeditionary force aboard and its own medical facilities. Officials said they hoped the Marine contingent would arrive as soon as today.

The military also has ordered two other amphibious vessels to set sail.

About 125 troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were also sent, the leading edge of a contingent of 3,000 soldiers, Defense officials said.

They will confront a patchwork of destruction. In downtown Port-au-Prince, many old buildings with columns and porticoes toppled into the wide and once-splendid Grand Rue. The middle section of the National Palace and all three domes fell, but the president’s apartment on the grounds appeared to be intact.

The adjacent Dessalines barracks, the infamous army barracks where enemies of the Duvalier dictatorship were tortured and killed, still stood. But many government buildings, including the tax office and Health Ministry, were complete losses.

For residents, the shortages of food, water and fuel carried the prospect of increased hardship in a nation with a volatile history. Chaotic lines formed at gas stations, though it was unclear if any gasoline would be pumped. Those with enough fuel created a noisy traffic jam on one main boulevard heading out of the capital.

People scavenged for water, carrying empty canisters in the street.

One elderly man, who wanted to be identified by only his first name, Milton, said Haitians were hoping that U.S. Marines, who have been deployed during times of political upheaval, would come again.

“When the U.S. occupation is good and big, it creates work, builds roads, helps people,” he said. Not only that, Milton added, Marines tended to toss the remains of their meals into the city’s omnipresent mountains of garbage.

“They bring good ham and cheese,” he said. “And you know it’s good food because they have eaten it.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City, Kenneth R. Weiss in Los Angeles and Christi Parsons, Paul Richter, Andrew Zajac and Julian E. Barnes in the Washington Bureau, as well as Times wire services, contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

The Times in Haiti

To convey Haiti’s devastation and the struggle of its people to survive, The Times dispatched three reporters and two photographers to the Caribbean nation. Tina Susman, the paper’s former Baghdad Bureau chief, who is now based in New York City, left within hours of the quake and was among the first foreign reporters to fly into Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

She was followed hours later by California Section reporter Joe Mozingo, who has experience working in Haiti. Mexico City Bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson, a veteran Times foreign correspondent, drove in from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Carolyn Cole also drove in Wednesday morning and began capturing images in the capital. And Rick Loomis, another Times Pulitzer winner, hopped a humanitarian aid flight from Miami the same day, filing his first pictures from a makeshift hospital on the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport.

This team is providing Times readers in print and on the Web with an intimate, up-to-the-minute portrait of this unfolding tragedy.


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