Haiti earthquake: ICRC rushes to get water and medical supplies to survivors

Significant amounts of emergency aid have arrived in quake-struck Port-au-Prince. The challenge now is to get it to survivors as quickly as possible. Further assessments confirm that the damage is widespread and immense. Very few neighbourhoods have been spared, while local infrastructure and services have been wiped out. The ICRC has built latrines for 1,000 people and supplied medical kits for 2,000 patients to two hospitals. Seven truckloads of ICRC medical supplies should arrive in the capital on Sunday evening.

General situation

Tens of thousands of quake survivors have spent a fifth night outdoors in the makeshift camps that have sprung up in every neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince. Access to shelter, toilets, water, food and medical care remains extremely limited, according to ICRC specialists on the ground. While some food seems to be available in the city, prices have skyrocketed and most people cannot afford to buy anything.

Medical facilities in Port-au-Prince still lack staff and medicine. They are overwhelmed and bursting at the seams. The sanitation situation in the makeshift camps is precarious.

"Croix de Pré may be the most devastated neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince," says ICRC spokesman, Simon Schorno, who has visited most areas of city. "Very few buildings are left standing and in every back alley, people have pitched their plastic sheets and blankets. Some survivors sit in smashed and dusty cars. There is trash everywhere and the air is filled with the stench of dead bodies," he says.

The ICRC, which was already present and active in Haiti before Tuesday's earthquake, is strengthening its response to the crisis. It works as part of the wider International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and cooperates closely with the Haitian Red Cross.

According to Mr. Schorno, the headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross, which is located near Croix de Pré, is surrounded by people looking for medical care. The National Society has set up a first aid post in the middle of the street, where Red Cross volunteers from Haiti and other countries work side-by-side to clean and stitch up wounds amidst the rubble.

Death and desperation

In Centreville, on the Place du Champ de Mars, several thousand survivors are now living in one of the city's largest makeshift camps. Mr. Schorno describes a desperate situation there. "Some people have found a bit of shade but most sit in the sun. The stench of stale urine is overpowering. Hundreds of children improvise games, laugh and cry. Mothers chat with neighbours and fan themselves," he says.

Martine, a 39-year-old mother, washes her son in a bucket of water. Several families have already used it. Her husband left earlier in the morning to fetch drinking water. For now, they have none. Her neighbours gave her a few vegetables they had cooked. "I don't know how long we'll stay or where we'll go," she says.

The streets further towards the sea are packed with people. Aftershocks continue and no one wants to be inside the few buildings left standing.

"There are bloated, decomposing bodies in the streets, many leaking yellow liquid," says Mr. Schorno. "Motorcycles and cars drive around them, and no one looks. Young men remove blocks of cement from collapsed buildings. They are not looking for people, but for scrap metal. It seems they are now focused only on their own survival."

Race against time to save lives

In the shadow of the flattened NationalPalace, the police headquarters is empty and the building half-collapsed. Police officers and their families, who are also in need of help, sit in their cars and pick up trucks. Rémi, the three-year-old son of one officer, is sick and injured.

"He was under the building for four hours and has been paralysed since we moved him out of the rubble, three days ago," says his father. "I am scared," whispers his mother, Wilma. "Is my boy going to die?" Her son, who has not eaten in two days and is unresponsive, is taken to a nearby field hospital. It is the only functioning medical facility in Montrissant. There are four doctors for around 400 patients waiting at the makeshift clinic, which is made up of two metal containers and canvas-covered courtyard.

It is packed and there are dozens of wounded and sick people at the gate. "One of the doctors told me they cannot cope and lost over 50 patients in the past two days," says Mr. Schorno. Around 50 expatriate doctors are expected to arrive soon but for some survivors, like Rémi, the help may be too late.

"Closer to the sea, huge piles of black and white trash are piling up, grey polluted water floods the streets, ladies sell dirty vegetables, and young men are cutting up used car tires," says Mr. Schorno. "Buses blowing clouds of black smoke are full. Those who can are leaving the city for the countryside, where it might be easier to survive and perhaps start anew."

No one left untouched

Before the quake, the Haitian Red Cross had around 1,000 registered volunteers in Port-au-Prince, many of whom have since been working around-the-clock to help those in need.

"We have saved many lives in the last few days," says Judas Celoge, the field coordinator for the Haitian Red Cross' first aid post in Martissant - one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city.

Near the first aid table on the side of the street, 13-year-old Marine sits on the sidewalk holding her head in her hands. She doesn't cry but stares emptily ahead. She lost both her parents and her brother and sister in the quake. Their bodies have not been found and probably never will be.

"Everyone you talk to has lost someone. There is no one here that has not been affected by this tragedy," says Mr. Schorno.

ICRC activities

The international relief activities of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, including those of the ICRC, are being coordinated by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

The ICRC continues to work closely with its Red Cross partners on the ground to assess humanitarian needs and deliver relief assistance.

A shipment of around 40 tonnes of ICRC medical supplies, sent from Geneva on Thursday night, is finally expected to arrive in Port-au-Prince on Sunday evening. It will arrive by truck from the Dominican Republic.

On Saturday, 16 January, the ICRC started a water trucking programme in the Delmas neighbourhood, which is now providing clean water for around 1,000 people living in a makeshift camp. Latrines have also been built in the same neighbourhood.

The ICRC, with the support of the Haitian Red Cross, has supplied medical kits to treat 2,000 patients for a month to two Port-au-Prince referral hospitals. Hundreds of blankets and plastic sheets have also been distributed.

Given the scope of the disaster, the ICRC is not in a position to provide exact figures about the number of deaths or injuries resulting from the earthquake.

A second ICRC rapid deployment team left Geneva on Sunday morning for Haiti, where they will provide additional forensics, tracing, nursing, communications and logistics support to staff already on the ground.

Meanwhile, the first of three massive Red Cross Red Crescent basic health care emergency response units (ERUs) arrived on 16 January. The ERU is designed to provide basic and immediate health care to 30,000 people. So far, 14 ERUs have been deployed to Haiti, with most expected to arrive in the coming days. They include water and sanitation units, logistic units, IT and telecommunication infrastructure, and a massive 250-bed hospital.

In addition, ICRC Delegates have visited several places of detention in Port-au-Prince to assess the needs of the detainees and the authorities, and to follow up on detention issues.

Family links

The ICRC is working to set up a post at the headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross to help restore family links between people who may have been separated or who are searching for missing relatives. People will also be able to register as safe and well. The post will ensure that people can receive and forward information to their relatives.

As of 17 January, more than 21,600 people had registered with the ICRC's special website, www.icrc.org/familylinks, which was activated on Thursday to help people searching for their loved ones.

The overwhelming majority of registrations are from people looking for news about their relatives, although around 1,500 people have so far used the site to say they were safe and alive.

"The large number of people who have registered the names of their loved ones is a clear indicator of how many people outside Haiti are really desperate for news," says Robert Zimmerman, who's in charge of the ICRC's Restoring Family Links programme.

"It's going to take some time, though, before we're able to collect significant amounts of information from within Haiti. We're trying to get the word out that this service exists and that people can let the Red Cross know they're okay, but for the anxious relatives waiting for news, it's going to require patience and time."

For further information, please contact:

Simon Schorno, ICRC Port-au-Prince, satellite tel: +88 165 146 6175

Anna Nelson, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 217 3264

ICRC out-of-hours duty phone, tel: +41 22 730 3443