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U.S.: Haiti aid bottleneck is easing up

Haiti Struggles With Death And Destruction After Catastrophic Earthquake
A policeman in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday tries to stop two men from entering a section of downtown where people were searching for food at a collapsed supermarket. Win McNamee / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Amid sporadic looting and pleas from local police for backup, the U.S. military said Monday that the bottleneck slowing aid distribution in Haiti's capital is easing, with more flights moving through the city's airport and the seaport expected to reopen later this week.

About 100 flights a day are now landing, up from 60 last week, said the U.S. military spokesman in Haiti, Cmdr. Chris Lounderman. "The ramp was designed for 16 large aircraft," he said. "At times there were up to 40. That's why there was gridlock."

In addition, the U.S. military on Monday staged the first drop of supplies from a fixed aircraft. Flying nonstop from a base in North Carolina, a C-17 delivered 14,500 meals ready to eat and 15,000 liters of water to a drop zone five miles northeast of the Port-au-Prince airport, the military said.

Helicopters have been delivering supplies but their loads are significantly smaller. Thirty three are now in the field, and will be joined by 15 more by Tuesday, the U.S. military said.

U.S. officials also agreed with U.N. officials on a system to grant priority to humanitarian flights — following criticism that military and rescue flights had sometimes been first in line.

Some countries and aid groups such as Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders had complained that planes filled with doctors and medical supplies had been forced to land in the neighboring Dominican Republic and come in by road, delaying urgent care for injured quake victims by two days.

In Paris, French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet expressed concern about the major U.S. military role in the country, saying it should be clarified: "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," said Joyandet, who last week complained about U.S. handling of the airport.

But other French officials were conciliatory.

"You have a small airport ... which was devastated by the earthquake and you have hundred of planes which want to land," said French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud. "So it's totally normal that there are delays, but I think that the situation has dramatically improved."

He said it's still more important to repair the damaged seaport — a task U.S. officials said they hoped to achieve this week. "In terms of aid, it's the port where we can bring most of the aid," Araud said.

The U.S. Coast Guard ship Oak is at the harbor and will use heavy cranes and other equipment to make the port functional.

Also Monday, some 2,200 U.S. Marines arrived by ship, their mission to protect the huge relief operation.

Police: Haiti needs helpIt was not clear when the Marines would leave their ships for the destroyed streets of Port-au-Prince, but local police pleaded for backup immediately.

"We do not have the capacity to fix this situation. Haiti needs help ... the Americans are welcome here. But where are they? We need them here on the street with us," said policeman Dorsainvil Robenson, as he chased looters.

"Whether things explode is all down to whether help gets through from the international community," added police commander Ralph Jean-Brice, who runs Haiti's West Department. His police force is down by half due to the quake.

Looting spread to more parts of downtown Port-au-Prince on Monday as hundreds of young men and boys clambered up broken walls to break into shops to take whatever they could find. Especially prized was toothpaste, which people smear under their noses to fend off the stench of decaying bodies.

At one place, youths fought over a stock of rum with broken bottles, machetes and razors and police fired shots into the air to break up the crowd.

"I am drinking as much as I can. It gives courage," said Jean-Pierre Junior, wielding a broken wooden plank with nails to protect his bottle of rum.

Even so, the U.S. Army's on-the-ground commander, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, said the city is seeing less violence than before the earthquake. "Is there gang violence? Yes. Was there gang violence before the earthquake? Absolutely."'

The Marines are arriving with heavy earth-moving equipment, medical aid and helicopters, said the U.S. Southern Command, which aims to have more than 10,000 U.S. troops in the area for the rescue operation. Some 1,000 U.S. troops were already on the ground Monday morning, most of them Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday asked the Security Council to beef up the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti with 1,500 additional police and 2,000 troops. The U.N. now has about 7,000 troops and 2,100 police in Haiti. A decision was expected Tuesday.

World leaders have promised massive amounts of assistance to rebuild Haiti since Tuesday's quake killed as many as 200,000 people and left its capital, Port-au-Prince, in ruins.

European Union institutions and member states have offered more than $575 million in emergency and longer-term assistance to Haiti, which even before the disaster was already the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, arrived Monday in Port-au-Price, bringing aid supplies and being briefed on Haiti's needs. He was due to meet with Haitian President Rene Preval, whose cabinet met outside police headquarters on Sunday in a circle of white plastic chairs due to the collapse of the presidential palace.

Streets piled with debris slowed the delivery of medical and food supplies, but there were signs of progress as international medical teams took over damaged hospitals where seriously injured people had lain untreated for days.

A few signs of normality returned as street sellers emerged with fruit and vegetables, but gangs of looters still prowled demolished streets of downtown Port-au-Prince.

In downtown on Sunday, Haitian riot police fired tear gas to disperse looters as several nearby shops burned.

"We've been ordered not to shoot at people unless completely necessary," said Pierre Roger, a Haitian police officer who spoke as yet another crowd of looters ran by. "We're too little, and these people are too desperate."

With people turning more desperate by the day, looters are even fighting each other with knives, hammers, ice picks and rocks.

In some cases, neighbors have become vigilantes. At least two suspected looters were shot dead on Sunday, witnesses said.

Moreover, heavily armed gang members have returned to the Cite Soleil shantytown since breaking out from prison after the quake.

Situation manageable?
American officials are concerned about security in earthquake-stricken Haiti but consider the situation manageable, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti said in an interview.

"The security situation is obviously not perfect," Kenneth Merten told TODAY when asked about the potential for violence among people desperate for food, water and shelter.

"The Haitian police, due to their own significant losses, are degraded," he said. "The U.N. has had losses."

But Merten also said he believes "things are going reasonably well. This is not a perfect law and order situation here even in the best of times. We're concerned about it and we're monitoring it closely, but I don't think it's anything that's unmanageable."

Merten called the U.S. military presence in and around the island a backup option in the event of violence, saying first call would be the Haitian police force and the U.N. force in Haiti. He credited Brazilians in that force with making a strong contribution toward stability.

"Our troops are standing by in cases where neither the Haitian police nor the U.N. troops are providing security," Merten said. "In most cases, the Haitian police and the U.N. forces have been able to handle the situation."