As airports are readied for Haiti aid, deliveries hit bottleneck

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and Mexico City -- U.S. forces rushed Tuesday to prepare new airports to boost the flow of aid to Haiti, but a week after an earthquake devastated its capital the relief effort was increasingly hampered by a crimp in the supply chain: a shortage of gasoline that left medicine, food and water sitting out of reach of the needy.

President Rene Preval said Haitian authorities had buried 72,000 victims of the quake, a figure that does not include an untold number buried privately. Officials have estimated that 200,000 people may have died, but the true figure may never be known.

In badly damaged neighborhoods throughout the city, heavy-equipment crews began tearing into thousands of collapsed buildings. An exodus grew, as people packed up their belongings and headed to the provinces.

Those who remained in the city were watching the skies. Rain clouds gathered over the high pine ridges far above the city. Sometimes the mountains hold them back; sometimes they don’t.

“If it rains now, it will be a total catastrophe for us,” Preval said. Tens of thousands of people are living in tent cities that spread daily through soccer fields, school grounds and parks. And rain could loosen tons of concrete rubble.

Preval’s government is operating out of a police station near the airport. While the weather held Tuesday, U.S. military helicopters touched down on the grounds of his battered downtown palace. Troops in full combat gear unloaded boxes of bottled water and food rations and appeared to be setting up a base. Some Haitians watching from the other side of the green wrought-iron palace fence cheered.

Airfields in the provincial Haitian city of Jacmel and in Santo Domingo, capital of neighboring Dominican Republic, were being prepared to accept aid flights, U.S. Maj. Gen. Dan Allyn told reporters. He said they would be ready within 48 hours.

Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince, reportedly was badly damaged by the magnitude 7.0 quake. Santo Domingo was not damaged, and it has become an important link for aid workers and journalists heading to Port-au-Prince. U.S. officials were planning to use it for non-urgent shipments that could go by air or land.

The U.S. military has taken control of the Port-au-Prince airport, but aid organizations have complained that it is giving priority to military and diplomatic flights. The aid group Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday that five planes carrying supplies and relief workers were turned away.

Spokeswoman Emily Linendoll said that the group’s aid flights arriving from Europe or the Dominican Republic were being turned away at the last minute while diplomatic flights were allowed to land.

“Every hour is precious in terms of having a chance to save the lives of our patients,” she said. “It’s critical that medical supplies be prioritized for operational groups on the ground.”

It was far from certain, however, that once supplies arrived, they could quickly be delivered to those in need.

The country has only a two-week supply of fuel on hand, and the wharf where tankers would unload supplies was badly damaged.

Gregory Mevs, a businessman who controls the storage of petroleum products, said 1 million gallons of gasoline and diesel would be distributed Tuesday throughout the city. But in addition to supplying vehicles used for fuel deliveries, gasoline is in high demand for generators.

Priority on Tuesday went to five hospitals that were running out of fuel to run their generators.

Mevs said his company would be able to repair the wharf in time to bring in more fuel.

In the meantime, crates of medical supplies, blankets, tarps, food, hygiene kits and water bladders were sitting on the airport tarmac.

“For a day and a half, the water trucks that were supposed to come couldn’t find fuel,” said Caroline Gluck, press officer for Oxfam’s humanitarian team. “It was incredibly demoralizing.”

She said UNICEF managed to secure some fuel for relief trucks that should last for two or three days.

“People know aid is coming,” Gluck said. “They see the airplanes. But they are not getting the aid. Each day is going to be worse and worse.”

Gail J. McGovern, president of the American Red Cross, stood by a Lebanese cargo plane at the airport.

“There is a logjam at the airport,” she said. “There is a logjam for trucks. There is a logjam at the port. And no fuel.”

Aid workers from the Dominican Republic did unload large piles of plantain stalks on a lawn in the city’s light industrial zone.

They initially let only women and children inside to get them, and men standing on the outside ordered them which stalks to pick.

Cheri, cheri!” a man yelled at his wife. “Grab that big one.” Soon, frustrated men jumped the fence.

The Dominicans didn’t stop them, but they didn’t ignore the weaker people, either. Celia Jeantice, 70, walked by in green flip-flops and a faded floral dress on her way to getting bandages changed on her leg and arm, which had suffered deep cuts.

When Dominican truck driver Hector Cuevas spotted her beyond the men and boys grabbing bananas, he stepped into the fray, grabbed a big stalk, and quietly handed it over the fence to her.

Looting, fistfights and other bursts of violence rippled across the city. Wilson Louis, the mayor of Cite Soleil, a slum where an estimated 500,000 people live, said relatively few had died there but that the neighborhood had received nothing and frustration was growing.

“They’ve not received any assistance. No food, no medical help. Poor people have dignity, and they should be treated with dignity,” he said. “All the conditions are coming together for people to begin rioting -- rioting against the government and against the international community.”

Asked about security in the city, Preval said that only slightly more than half the police force had reported for work since the quake. “Police stations collapsed, many lost their families,” he said.

The appearance of U.S. forces on the grounds of the presidential palace, a symbol of authority in Haiti, was a striking sign of the growing American role.

Aware of possible political sensitivities stemming from past U.S. interventions, military officials have gone out of their way to assure Haitians that they are not taking over. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vehement critic of the U.S. on almost all issues, has accused Washington of using earthquake relief as a pretext for “occupying” Haiti.

The U.S. has mobilized more than 10,000 soldiers, Marines and sailors. Offshore, a growing number of U.S. vessels serve as a floating military base and landing strip for aircraft delivering goods. Some Haitians have been airlifted to the ships for emergency medical treatment.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution to raise the cap on the size of its peacekeeping mission in Haiti, increasing the number of troops by 2,000 and police officers by 1,500.

The decision brings the total United Nations force designated to deal with the disaster to 8,940 troops and 3,711 police officers. What is unclear is how soon the additional troops and officers will get there.

The beefed-up U.N. force is meant to escort convoys of trucks carrying aid and to provide security in case violence breaks out.

Times staff writer Geraldine Baum in New York contributed to this report.