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Haiti Earthquake Displaces 300,000

Lisa Schlein | Geneva 15 January 2010

In its first estimate, the United Nations reports about 10 percent of the housing in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince has been destroyed, leaving some 300,000 people homeless. The UN says a full assessment of the damages inflicted by the powerful earthquake will take several days to complete.

The United Nations says some 3.5 million people are living in areas affected by the earthquake. Nearly three million are in the capital, Port-au-Prince, which was most seriously affected.

Aid agencies say it is too soon to know how many people were killed and injured. But, they say it is sure to be in the tens of thousands.

In the meantime, a helicopter assessment of the stricken area has found 50 percent of some areas have been destroyed or seriously damaged, with many buildings completely collapsed.

A U.N. spokeswoman, Elizabeth Byrs, says a coordination center has been set up near the airport to oversee the increasingly complex humanitarian operation. And, she says a reception center has been set up at the airport to help coordinate the many incoming teams and humanitarian aid.

In addition, she says an air bridge is being established with the Dominican Republic from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince.

"Another shuttle will be put in place, established by the peacekeeping forces - a shuttle with airplanes with the capacity of between 30 and 40 passengers," she said.

The World Food Program and International Organization for Migration report they distributed food and non-food items Thursday to 4,000 survivors in Port-au-Prince. They will continue with the emergency distribution today, Friday.

World Food Program spokeswoman, Emilia Casella, says WFP's warehouses have been seriously damaged but food stocks appear to be intact. In any case, she says that the food in the warehouses is not appropriate for the current needs.

She says people caught in the earthquake are unable to cook and require ready-to-eat foods.

"What the World Food Program is now looking at is aiming to reach initially about two million people who are affected by Tuesday's earthquake with an emergency operation that will start by calling for 14 million humanitarian daily rations which would be enough to feed two million people for about 30 days," she said.

Thousands of corpses are strewn along the streets of Port-au-Prince and environs. A World Health Organization spokesman, Paul Garwood, says collecting and disposing of the corpses is of primary concern.

"The presence of dead bodies in a community does not pose a public health risk," he noted. "That has got to be stressed and made clear. There has been inaccurate reporting to that fact… At the same time, there is an obvious psycho-social mental health aspect to this. People do not want to see this. And, if you are a family member of someone who has passed away, anyone seeing this kind of tragedy has to be responded to. We work with that kind of urgency."

Garwood says the scale of this disaster is overwhelming. He says there is an urgent need for more body bags so laying the corpses to rest is done in an appropriate way.

He says WHO does not recommend mass graves. Rather, in cases where there are large numbers of bodies, he says WHO advises that bodies be placed in shallow ditches.

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