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UN: Time Running Out for Quake Victims in Haiti

Meredith Buel | Washington 15 January 2010

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says time is running out to rescue people trapped by this week's devastating earthquake in Haiti. The Red Cross estimates 45,000 to 50,000 people have died in the rubble and those who survived are in desperate need of food, water and medical care.

Search and rescue operations are continuing in the earthquake ravaged Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, but officials say the window of opportunity to save those who are buried is beginning to close.

The United Nations estimates as many as 50 percent of the buildings in the worst-hit areas are damaged or destroyed, leaving some 300,000 homeless.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says many of the capital area's three million people have no food, water, shelter or electricity.

He is appealing for $550 million from the international community to help meet the most immediate needs.

"A major humanitarian effort is now well underway," said Ban Ki-moon. "Although it is inevitably slower and more difficult than any of us would wish, we are mobilizing all resources as fast as we possibly can."

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Haitian President Rene Preval in what Mr. Obama described as an emotional phone call to discuss the crisis.

Mr. Preval was cut off from his government after Tuesday's quake, which heavily damaged the presidential palace and government ministries.

The United States is providing the Haitian president with communications equipment to restore his shattered government and has committed $100 million to the relief effort.

U.S. Navy ships and thousands of troops are arriving to assist with the distribution of aid, but Mr. Obama says it will take time to make sure supplies are delivered safely.

"There are going to be many difficult days ahead," said President Obama. "So many people are in need of assistance, the port continues to be closed and the roads are damaged. Food is scarce and so is water. It will take time to establish distribution points so that we can ensure that resources are delivered safely and effectively and in an orderly fashion."

A spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Emilia Casella, says the organization has begun delivering emergency rations to victims unable to cook and in need of 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," said Emilia Casella.

Thousands of bodies are stacked on the streets and sidewalks of Port-au-Prince, and limbs of the dead protrude from the rubble of crushed schools and homes.

VOA's Brian Wagner is in Port-au-Prince:

"There's a stream of pedestrians through most parts of the city," said Brian Wagner. "When people pass these areas with bodies, they just simply cover their faces with their shirts. Some of them have surgical masks or other things to cover their noses."

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has lived in exile in South Africa after being ousted in a violent rebellion in 2004, says he would like to return home to help reconstruct his country.

"To join the people of Haiti, to share in their suffering, help rebuild the country," said Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says the Obama administration is discouraging visits to Haiti by prominent political figures, including Mr. Aristide.

"The last thing that we need is to have someone land and put an additional burden in an already-stressed situation," said Crowley. "We've sent that same message to our members of Congress."

In a sign of international cooperation, the White House says it has received rare permission from Havana to use Cuban airspace for aid and evacuation flights.

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