Race Against Time in Haiti 'Help us to Go Get Our Children!'

The US military is gradually overcoming the worst logistical problems in Haiti, but the chances of finding people alive under the rubble are waning with every passing day. The fate of the devastated nation has been placed in Washington's hands. Desperate families are imploring President Barack Obama to save their children.

Looters runs with goods from a destroyed store in downtown Port-au-Prince, January 17.
REUTERS

Looters runs with goods from a destroyed store in downtown Port-au-Prince, January 17.

By in Miami


Len Gengel sounded desperate when he stepped in front of the camera on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton and implored US President Barack Obama to help him. "We need your help," he said, fighting back the tears. "We're running out of time. As a father, President Obama, you must feel our pain in what we're going through," he said. "Father to father, we need you, I am asking you, I am pleading you to go help us to go get our children."

The devastation of Haiti, some 1,200 kilometers away, has sparked particular shock and anguish in this private college in Florida because 12 of its students and two professors had been on a school trip to Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck last Tuesday. Eight of the students were able to save themselves. The others are still missing, including Britney Gengel, 19. At first there were reports that she had been rescued from the rubble of the Hotel Montana. Her parents rushed to Florida -- where they learned that they had been misinformed.

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Photo Gallery: The Rescue Effort Takes Shape

Britney is still missing. And her family has been anxiously waiting for news from Port-au-Prince. The university has dispatched its own private search team to Haiti to assist the official rescue teams. A second team was denied permission to land in Port-au-Prince but got through on Saturday by helicopter from the neighboring Dominican Republic. Dramas such as these are stirring emotions in the US. The news channels are running coverage of the disaster all day long. They are focusing on stories about the suffering of the Haitians but also of US citizens and others waiting for help in the hell of Haiti.

Sharp Criticism of US Crisis Management

The US-led response to the crisis has been criticized for being too slow and uncoordinated and the US government has been at pains to placate critics. On Sunday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Haitian President Rene Preval issued a carefully-worded joint communiqué stressing the "paramount importance of safe, swift and effective implementation of rescue, relief, recovery, and reconstruction efforts." Preval said the involvement of the US was "essential" and urged Washington to help in "augmenting security' in support not only of the government and the people of Haiti but also of the United Nations and international organizations on the ground. Clinton had met with Preval on Saturday during a brief visit to Port-au-Prince.

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Photo Gallery: Surviving the Aftermath
Aid groups are reporting that some supply bottlenecks have been overcome and that increasing amounts of supplies are getting through. "Things are happening," said Cathy Woolard, the executive vice president of CARE. The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders reported that two of its planes with drugs and medical personnel had at last reached Port-au-Prince on Sunday. On Saturday one of its aircraft had been refused permission to land, despite guarantees from the UN and US military. The plane was carrying an inflatable hospital with 100 beds and two operating theaters. It has had to be sent by an overland route instead.

Doctors Without Borders is still concerned that the supply of essential materials is being delayed. Denis McDonough, Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser who has been dispatched to Haiti, said the growing concern of aid agencies was "absolutely understandable" -- but he asked for patience. Everyone was "directed at improving the process," he said.

'Overwhelming Support' Exceeded Capacities at Airport

US Air Force Colonel Buck Elton, who has taken over the running of Port-au-Prince airport, said "overwhelming international support initially exceeded our capacity," but that the situation was improving by the day. He denied accusations that the US military was giving its own flights prioritiy. Some 60 percent of takeoffs and landings were civilian flights and only 40 percent military, he said.

General Douglas Fraser, the commander of the US Southern Command, said in his blog that he could understand the desperation and helplessness the survivors must be feeling, but added, "Be assured, help is on its way."

His deputy, Ken Keen, was giving the same message on the Sunday talk shows in the US. "We had a very good day yesterday, getting out, delivering supplies," said the general, who happened to be in Haiti during the earthquake and who now heads the new Joint Task Force Haiti.

The White House has been releasing statistics to counter the impression that the aid is getting through only slowly. Port-au-Prince airport was now open around the clock and could process 100 planes per day, 40 more than on Saturday, the White House said. It added that 600 tons of relief supplies had got to Haiti in this way. In addition, 30 helicopters and 5,800 soldiers had been brought in, while a further 7,500 soldiers were on their way. Plus six search and rescue teams with 70 members each from Virginia, California, New York and Florida, flanked by 21 international search teams. US troops had already flown in 130,000 one-day food rations and more than 70,000 bottles of water, the figures showed. A further 600,000 rations would be flown in this week.

Colonel Elton was at pains to describe the challenges his men faced at the airport. "When we arrived, there was no electricity, no communications, no support," said Elton. The tower and terminal can't be used and the Air Force was operating "on the grass," he added. But it had still managed to arrange some 600 take-offs and landings over the runway, which is just 300 meters long.

Hopes Fading

He said the US Air Force was trying to process every plane in two to three hours. But it sometimes takes seven or eight hours because the airport's unloading equipment had been destroyed. "We're doing everything in our power," said Elton.

One aid worker who said she was in Haiti defended the US military. Writing in "The Lede," a news blog on the New York Times Web site, she said: "I understand all the concern and outrage over the slowness of aid." But she added: "The US military is doing a good job to control the very complicated air traffic control."

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Photo Gallery: Aid Gets to People in Haiti, But Only Slowly

The US coordinators are stressing that they're working closely with all the organizations involved -- with the government of Haiti, the United Nations and the aid organizations. Tim Callaghan, the Senior Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID, said his delegation met with Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive every morning to discuss the needs of the Haitian people. "We're here at the invitation of the Haitian government," he added.

US teams are playing a major role in the rescue of survivors. A total of 62 people had been rescued alive from the rubble by Sunday afternoon, almost half of them by US teams. But they're running out of time.

Rescue workers are still looking for survivors, said Callaghan. But with every day it will become more difficult to find survivors, he added. It will be up to the Haitian government to decide when the search and rescue phase should end and be converted to a pure recovery operation, said Callaghan.

Such sentences are painful for the families of the missing students of Boca Raton. "It's getting harder and harder to keep your spirits up," said Christine Steinwand, Britney Gengel's aunt. "Every day takes its toll."

The students had been in Port-au-Prince together with the welfare organization Food for the Poor. The motto of the class trip was: "Journey of Hope."

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