Haiti: Quake-hit Haiti's cabinet meets -- in the open-air

  • On a bench, ministers try to coordinate aid effort

* Government meeting regularly with foreign officials

* Officials counting personal losses too

By Andrew Cawthorne

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Haiti's cabinet met on Sunday. On a bench and some plastic chairs in an open-air yard.

Grieving for their own losses and those of a nation, the exhausted and overwhelmed officials sat in a circle on a concrete slab outside a police station, seeking to put some order into their response to a catastrophic earthquake.

Loosely-speaking, the United Nations is leading the relief effort, while the U.S. military is in charge of air-traffic after Tuesday's disaster that Haitian officials say killed between 100,000-200,000 people.

But in line with diplomatic propriety, Haitian leaders are being consulted, and are giving approval, at every step.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive led Sunday's cabinet meeting. President Rene Preval raised a hand of greeting to the team as he entered the police station that has become his home and office since the presidential palace partially collapsed.

Foreign ambassadors and heads of U.N. and other international agencies joined the ministers in what officials said would now be a twice-daily meeting to try to coordinate the world's rush to help Haiti.

"They say the government is not fast, but we are doing our best," Information Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue told a Reuters correspondent who simply pulled up a chair to listen in to the cabinet meeting.

"All the ministries have fallen down. Everything in Haiti is broken. There is not one person in this country without a friend or relative dead. The minister of finance lost his girl of 12. The minister of tourism lost his father and mother. The chief of police ... lost two of his three children."

Lassegue, who hunted in vain for a working radio station in the hours after the earthquake to broadcast information to Haitians, said the government's priority was to coordinate the mass of aid arriving from abroad.


Planes land at Port-au-Prince airport every few hours, but the trucks that head out with food, water and other emergency supplies immediately run into clogged streets.

So helicopters are also being deployed to drop off aid in makeshift refugee camps.

At the judicial police headquarters that has become the de facto head of government, senior figures from Haitian public life come rushing in from time-to-time with different messages.

"We need to remember to keep looking for the living. In my area, there are so many people still alive under there. We need materials to get them out," said Yvon Jerome, mayor of the capital's Carrefour district, who came to petition for help.

An adviser to the president, who specializes in banks, said half the capital's bank branches were probably flattened, but financiers were hoping to start putting some sort of system back in place from Wednesday.

"To put it very simply, though, we need the 82nd Airborne, the U.S. army, here to protect the banks before we open again," he said.

In a corner, after the cabinet meeting, Education Minister Joel De Jean-Pierre ponders how Haitians will continue to learn after half of the nation's schools and its three main universities collapsed or were damaged.

He is also tracking rescue efforts at his shattered ministry, where about 25 people have been rescued after the structure collapsed on some 100 inside.

Unlike other ministers, he has not lost immediate family, but takes a call from his brother, saying he has just collected the bodies of his wife and two children.

"Here in Haiti, our families are not just those nearest to us. Regardless of who we have and have not lost among our loved ones, this is a catastrophe for the whole Haitian family," he said.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sandra Maler)


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