'We need a flood of helicopters, ' Haiti's leader says

04/19/2009 12:36 PM

04/19/2009 12:42 PM

(This story was originally published September 9, 2008.)

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- With Haiti's major bridges crumbled, roadways flooded and an estimated one million people homeless, humanitarian and government groups struggled Monday to push relief supplies into the country and throughout the storm-ravaged Caribbean.

Four storms in rapid succession have demolished patches of the Caribbean from Cuba to Hispaniola to Jamaica to the Turks and Caicos Islands to the Bahamas, killing more than 350 people, sinking entire towns and hampering aid efforts.

"We need a flood of helicopters because there is a lot of food coming into Port-au-Prince and it cannot reach the provinces, " Haitian President René Préval said in an interview with The Miami Herald.

In Haiti, rescue groups have no access to many interior villages across the southern region and to hard-hit Gonaives, north of the capital, which was cut off when a bridge collapsed. A Red Cross truck trying to reach Les Cayes on the southern coast had to turn back because of impassable roads.

"The flooding is more extensive than people realize, and it's awful how little relief has been able to get into Gonaives and other areas, " said Dr. Arthur Fournier, a University of Miami physician who co-founded Project Medishare, a charity that transports medical aid to Haiti.

Thousands of Haitians have been living in hospitals as temporary shelters, Fournier said.

"They are going to be stuck there for a long time, " he said. "They don't have homes to go back to."

Local, national and international groups worry that a secondary disaster could arise from water-borne diseases. Fournier's group is trying to send LifeStraws to Haiti -- hand-held devices that purify water. Humanitarian workers said the most crucial supplies they need is water, sanitation items and food.

The U.S. military helped deliver food and medical help Monday, and the U.S. Agency for International Development donated $10 million. Money also trickled in from around the world: The European Union gave $2.85 million for relief efforts, and the Dominican Republic -- also struck by some of this year's storms -- donated water, food and mattresses. Trinidad and Tobago sent Haiti about $1.5 million.

Two U.S. Navy MH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters flew tens of thousands of pounds of food to Jeremie, an isolated Haitian city that Hurricane Gustav pounded. And the USS Kearsarge, a Navy hospital ship equipped with four operating rooms and 53 beds, arrived in Port-au-Prince after being rerouted from a mission to Colombia.

"It gives us a purpose, " said Sugat Patel, 34, an infectious-disease physician aboard the Kearsarge. He had five days off ahead of him until the ship was sent to Haiti. "I believe every soldier here would rather be doing something like this. They are doing their job."

In South Florida, meanwhile, politicians, charities and Caribbean-American coalitions called on people to send cash and supplies to the region.

"Despite our economic downturn in Florida, we must make a generous sacrifice, " Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora said.

Favalora assured that the money would be delivered directly to churches in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Jamaica and other affected countries.

He then waded into the contentious political debate surrounding U.S. policy toward Cuba and Haiti, calling for an immediate granting of temporary protected status for Haitians. That status would stop deportations of Haitians, which Favalora said would be unspeakably cruel given the current conditions on the island.

Favalora also said the United States should lift the embargo on Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Lifting the embargo would allow the church to more easily send "far more donations" to storm victims, he said.

South Florida congressional representatives also urged President Bush to halt the deportation of illegal Haitian immigrants until the island recovers from Ike's devastation. And a coalition of Cuban-American groups asked the Bush administration to temporarily lift the sanctions on family aid and remittances, as did Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"The best thing is for people to get help from friends and family, " said Mayra Sanchez of North Miami, whose mother and daughter live in Las Tunas, Cuba, where storms have damaged many homes. "But Cubans can't do that because of the embargo."

Relief is also needed in the southernmost Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, which Ike slammed into as a mighty Category 4 hurricane that peeled off roofs and knocked down buildings.

"It looks like Beirut, " Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick said at a Grand Turk airport with a collapsed hangar.

Some people cried and hugged Misick. At one home, women called out: "No food! No food!"

On the Bahamas' Great Inagua Island, a man snacked on coconuts in the streets of Matthew Town. He said Ike had rendered him homeless but joked about the fallen trees all over the island.

"It's easy to eat coconuts, " said Vincent Cartwright, 66, as he snacked on fruit he plucked from a downed tree.

Then, Cartwright said: "We got it bad here -- we're all mashed up."

The U.S. Coast Guard's Great Inagua station sustained minor damage, and crews there said they would assist with relief efforts soon.

Government workers and Red Cross volunteers flew into the island to survey damage and begin to distribute relief supplies like food, water and hygiene kits Monday afternoon.

The governments presence provoked irritation from some in Matthew Town.

"This is a total disaster, " Leopold Mullings, 47, yelled from his bicycle toward the government entourage. "We dont need assessments -- we need money!"

Miami Herald staff writers Oscar Corral and Casey Woods contributed to this report, which was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.

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